Washington, 15 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The 100 members of the U.S. Senate took their seats in the Senate chamber Thursday and began listening to colleagues from the House of Representatives tell them that the President of the United States is a criminal who must be convicted and removed from office.
With very little fanfare, U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist convened only the second impeachment trial of a president in U.S. history by reminding the senators that he is 74-years-old, suffers from a bad back and may need to stand up and stretch every once in awhile.
President Bill Clinton, who is not attending the trial and has no plans to do so, has been accused by a vote of the House of Representatives of committing perjury and obstructing justice, all in an effort to conceal a sexual relationship he was having with a woman named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton has admitted to what he called an improper relationship, but he denies guilt and says the charges against him are not serious enough to warrant his removal from office.
Clinton is a Democrat and has held all along that the impeachment move is an effort by his Republican opponents to force him from office. The Republicans hold the majority in the House, and the vote approving the two charges against Clinton last month followed party lines almost exactly.
Once the House impeaches a president, he must be tried in the Senate, which acts as a jury and where a vote of guilty by two-thirds majority is needed to convict him. Although the Republicans hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate, few believe that 67 senators will vote to convict Clinton on either charge.
The delegation from the House Judiciary Committee pressed ahead with its case Thursday, opening a trial that the White House hopes will end late next week with a vote to dismiss the case.
However, the Judiciary Committee members, who are called managers and are acting as prosecutors, urged the Senate to give their presentation a full and fair hearing that includes testimony from witnesses. The Senate has delayed a decision on whether witness testimony will be permitted.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), opened the House presentation by declaring that the prosecutors would, "explain how egregious and criminal the conduct alleged in the articles of impeachment is."
Hyde said: "With your permission, we, the managers of the House, are here to set forth the evidence in support of two articles of impeachment against President William Jefferson Clinton. You are seated in this historic chamber not to embark on some great legislative debate which these stately walls have so often witnessed but to listen to the evidence as those who must sit in judgment.
"To guide you in this grave duty, you've taken an oath of impartiality.
"With the simple words - "I do" - you have pledged to put aside personal bias and partisan interest and to do impartial justice. Your willingness to take up this calling has once again reminded the world of the unique brilliance of America's constitutional system of government."
Hyde's remarks opened the 24 hours the prosecutors will have to present their case against Clinton. He introduced each of the members of his team and explained what their tasks will be. Hyde said the presentation will continue today (Friday) and conclude on Saturday.
There will be no session on Sunday, or on Monday, which is a national holiday in the United States. Clinton's 11-member defense team will then have 24 hours to present its side. The Senators will then have 16 hours to submit written questions to Justice Rehnquist. After that, it is expected that a motion to dismiss the charges will be offered by the Democrats. Only a simple majority would be needed for approval.
Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, opened the prosecution's presentation with a summary of what he contends were the president's illegal acts.
He said: "We are here today because President William Jefferson Clinton decided to put himself above the law - not once, not twice, but repeatedly. He put himself above the law when he engaged in a multifaceted scheme to obstruct justice ...
"He put himself above the law when he made perjurious, false and misleading statements under oath during his grand jury testimony on Aug. 17, 1998. In both instances, he unlawfully attempted to prevent the judicial branch of government - a co-equal branch from performing its constitutional duty to administer equal justice under law."
Sensenbrenner said he would give Clinton credit for admitting that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was wrong. However, Sensenbrenner also said that Clinton, "has not owned up to the false testimony, the stonewalling, and legal hairsplitting and obstructing the courts from finding the truth."
The president was not even in Washington when the trial opened. He had traveled to neighboring Virginia to meet with police officers, and then he planned to leave for New York for a meeting with Wall Street leaders today (Friday).
The White House denounced the trial again on Thursday. Spokesman Joseph Lockhart said the case is based on political revenge, not law.