Accessibility links

Breaking News

Washington Journal: Impeachment Trial Overshadows Incoming Congress

Washington, 5 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The 106th United States Congress convenes its two-year session tomorrow (Wednesday) with legislative business shoved into the background by the impending impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in the U.S. Senate.

The first order of business for the 100 senators after they are sworn in will be to determine just how to proceed with the impeachment. Some senators want a full-scale trial of the president on the charges against him. Others want to get the impeachment proceedings over as quickly as possible so that the Senate can devote its complete attention to government business.

The new congress will still be controlled by the Republican Party, one of the two dominant parties in the United States. However, the margin of majority was reduced in the 435-member House of Representatives by five seats, and there was no change in the Senate.

In the House, there will be 223 Republicans, 211 Democrats, and one independent member. In the Senate, there are 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Clinton is a Democrat. The president and his supporters inside and outside of congress contend the entire impeachment process is a campaign by his opponents to drive him from office.

It was the House of Representatives in the 105th Congress that impeached Clinton in December. Thirteen Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are to present the case for convicting the president on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton is entitled to lawyers of his choosing, and the 100 senators will be the jury. The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over the trial.

According to the U.S. Constitution, two-thirds of the senators present must agree for a conviction. The penalty is removal from office, although some constitutional scholars have now raised the issue of whether a separate Senate vote is necessary to remove a convicted president.

Impeachment has been the number-one topic of discussion in Washington for weeks.

Under a bipartisan proposal by Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington state and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the House prosecutors would present their case next Monday. Clinton's defense team would have the next day to rebut; questions and answers would occupy the third day and senators would vote on the fourth day whether the House's accusations of perjury and obstruction of justice against the president, even if true, warranted removal from office.

Few in the Senate, even Clinton's harshest critics, believe that two-thirds of their number would vote for a conviction. Under the Gorton-Lieberman proposal the Senate could, with a simple majority vote, adjourn the trial permanently and consider a censure resolution against Clinton.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, (R-Mississippi), told Time magazine that the Gorton-Lieberman plan was a "fair start" but that the situation was fluid and could be changed "by any number of people or events."

Normally, one of the first orders of business for both the House and Senate is assembling in mid-January to hear a report from the president that has come to be called the State of the Union address. The constitution requires an annual report from the president to the congress. In the 20th century, presidents have been delivering this report in person to a joint session of the House and Senate. Since the advent of television, the address has been broadcast live nationwide. As he has since taking office in 1993, Clinton is expected to outline his legislative goals for the nation both for this year and probably for the final year of his presidency next year. Because of the impeachment issue, however, senators from both parties say Clinton should postpone his scheduled Jan. 19 speech if the trial is still going on.

Senator Gorton said Sunday on an American television program (NBC-Meet the Press) that he believes, "it would be unseemly and distracting for the president to be giving a State of the Union address to Congress while he was under trial in the Senate."

Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, who was interviewed with Gorton, agreed. He said, "It's inappropriate to report on the State of the Union as long as the president is under impeachment, because the State of the Union from the perspective of his administration is unclear."

However, White House press spokesman Joe Lockhart said Monday the president planned to deliver the State of the Union address as scheduled, but he did not rule out a change. Lockhart said, "We're planning to give that on Jan. 19. I'm not aware of any discussions or requests from the leadership to adjust that date."

Replying to Sen. Torricelli's suggestion, Lockhart said:

"I think the State of the Union address is as much for the American public to hear and see and to understand as it is for the members of Congress. "

Lockhart also restated the White House assertion that the president's aides are not pressuring any members of the Senate to make a favorable decision for Clinton. Said Lockhart:

"Well, I think it's -- it's appropriate to say what we have publicly said, that we want a process that meets the simple criteria of being fair, bipartisan and expeditious. I think, though, that as the senators all made very clear yesterday, what's most appropriate is for the Senate as a body to work out the procedure they believe they can follow or they should follow, and then I think they will consult on a more formal basis with the White House, with the House managers and others. "

Some Senate Democrats have also made clear they would oppose any plan to conduct regular business while the trial was under way. One senator, John Breaux of Louisiana, said it would be ridiculous to try the president in the afternoon and then discuss taxes or other domestic legislation in the morning or evening.