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Washington Journal: U.S. Senate Begins Clinton Impeachment Trial

Washington, 7 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate opens today the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton to determine whether he should be removed from office.

It will be only the second such trial of an American president in history.

The 100 Senators -- 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats -- will act as jurors in judging Clinton, a Democrat.

The U.S. Constitution requires conviction by a two-thirds vote, or 67 senators. Conviction would result in removing the president and for him to be succeeded by Vice President Albert Gore, Clinton's Democratic running mate. Most political observers doubt that 12 Democrats would cross party lines and vote for conviction.

At about 10 in the morning Washington time, 13 Republican members of the House of Representatives are scheduled to read the two articles of impeachment passed by the House last month. The impeachment vote came largely along party lines, with Democrats voting against it. The two articles charge Clinton with perjury (lying under oath) and obstruction of justice in attempting to cover up his relationship with former White House worker Monica Lewinsky.

The Senate will then pass a resolution requesting Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court to preside over the trial. The Supreme Court is America's highest judicial entity. It is headquartered near the U.S. Congress buildings.

After Rehnquist arrives (expected about 1800 Prague time), he will be sworn in at the Senate. Rehnquist will then administer an oath to the senators to act as jurors.

After convening in a formal session, the senators are expected to approve a resolution informing Clinton that the trial has begun. The Senate then is to adjourn the trial to discuss what to do next. The trial is expected to resume Monday.

This was also the scenario in 1868 for the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson on charges of abusing his authority for firing a Cabinet member. That trial ended with Johnson's acquittal by a single vote.

The leader of the Senate, Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi, said he is not certain how long the trial will take. He said it could last three weeks or more. Other senators have suggested it could take up to six months for the trial to conclude.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said his party opposes prolonging the case by calling witnesses at the trial as the House Republicans are proposing. Daschle urged the House to mind its own business.

He said: "We didn't involve ourselves in their proceedings and it is very disturbing that they now seem to be intent on involving themselves in ours."

On the eve of the historic trial, Clinton made no public statement about the matter. He has repeatedly denied in the past of committing any impeachable offenses but acknowledged that his relationship was improper and that he had "misled" the American people, his staff, and his family about the relationship.

White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart told reporters the president hopes that the trial can be completed expeditiously.

Both chambers of Congress opened their new session on Wednesday. Dennis Hastert, a Republican from the midwestern state of Illinois, was voted in as speaker of the House. The House is also controlled by the Republicans. The vote was 220-205, with Democrats voting for their leader, Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

Hastert called on Republicans and Democrats to work together to pass major pieces of legislation for the American people.

He said: "To my Democratic colleagues I say it's time to put forward the major elements of our legislative program. We will succeed or fail, depending upon how sensible a program we offer. And to my Republican colleagues I will say I will meet you halfway -- maybe more so on occasion. But cooperation is a two-way street, and I expect you to meet me halfway too. The president and a number of Democrats here in the House have been saying it's time to address several issues head-on. I'll buy that. But I think we should agree that stalemate is not an option; solutions are."