Washington, 15 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate voted (Feb. 12) to exonerate President Bill Clinton of charges that could have made him the first U.S. President removed from office.
In a brief speech from the White House after the vote, Clinton expressed both sorrow for having brought on the events that led to the charges and gratitude for the support he received.
In two historic votes, the 100 members of the Senate first declared Clinton "not guilty" on a charge of perjury by a vote of 55 to 45. Moments later, Clinton's impeachment ordeal ended when the Senate voted 50 to 50 on the charge of obstruction of justice. A minimum of 67 votes was needed to convict the president on either charge.
The presiding judge, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, formally cleared Clinton of the charges when he announced:
"The Senate having tried William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, upon two Articles of Impeachment exhibited against him by the House of Representatives, and two-thirds of the Senators present not having found him guilty of the charges contained therein: it is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said William Jefferson Clinton be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles."
It took 13 months for the impeachment proceedings, which started as a rumor about scandalous behavior at the White House, to play out. It took the Senate less than 30 minutes to dispose of the issue after almost four days of deliberations held in private.
The impeachment proceedings followed an inquiry by a special government prosecutor appointed to investigate allegations of wrongdoing at the White House. The prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, asserted last fall that Clinton lied when he denied, under sworn oath, that he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a woman who was an unpaid assistant at the White House in 1996 and then worked as a low-level employee there.
The second accusation was that he obstructed justice in an effort to keep the affair secret and conceal it from attorneys representing a woman named Paula Jones, who had filed a sexual harassment suit against Clinton based on an alleged encounter with him when he was governor of the southern state of Arkansas and she was a state employee in 1991.
The story broke in January, 1998. For months, Clinton rejected all the allegations, including the accusation he had an affair. However, Clinton finally conceded in August that he had what he called an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky, but he maintained innocence on the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Clinton is a Democrat and he contended all along that the impeachment controversy was driven by the desire of his most partisan Republican Party opponents to force him from office. The U.S. House of Representatives, which is dominated by the Republicans, voted to bring the charges, called articles of impeachment, against Clinton on December 19th.
The Senate trial lasted about five weeks, with four of those weeks devoted to presentation of evidence by a delegation of Republican prosecutors from the House Judiciary Committee and the rebuttal by Clinton's defense lawyers.
And, although Republicans control the Senate by a 55-45 margin, ten Republicans switched sides and joined the 45 Democrats in voting "not guilty" on the charge of perjury.
On the second charge, obstruction of justice, five Republicans joined the 45 Democrats in voting "not guilty." That exonerated Clinton of the second charge and removed the threat of his being the first U.S. president ever to be convicted. Clinton will be able to serve out the rest of his second, and final, four-year term, which ends January 20 in the year 2001. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from the southern state of Mississippi, brought the proceedings to an end when he asked Rehnquist to adjourn the trial.
There was never any question that Clinton would be exonerated. The question came down to how many senators would find the president not guilty.
The only other president to have been impeached by the House, Andrew Johnson, avoided conviction in the Senate by a single vote in 1868.
Clinton waited about two hours after the verdicts and then spoke briefly from the White House Rose Garden, saying again that he was sorry for having imposed such a burden on the U.S. Congress and the American people.
Clinton said: "Now that the Senate has fulfilled its constitutional responsibility bringing this process to a conclusion, I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people.
"I also am humbled and very grateful for the support and the prayers I have received from millions of Americans over this past year.
"Now I ask all Americans, and I hope all Americans here in Washington and throughout our land, will rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future together. This can be and this must be a time of reconciliation and renewal for America.
"Thank you very much."
Senate Democratic leader Thomas Daschle of the midwestern state of South Dakota, said Clinton's acquittal should not be seen as vindication for his behavior. He told reporters: "This was a rebuke. There is no question."
Another Democrat, Senator Robert Graham of the southern state of Florida, said: "The president's self-indulgent actions were immoral, disgraceful, reprehensible. History should - and, I suspect, will - judge that William Jefferson Clinton dishonored himself and the highest office in our American democracy."
Some of the Democrats tried to pass a resolution that would have censured Clinton for his conduct. Senator Dianne Feinstein from the state of California, had prepared a resolution rebuking Clinton for "shameful, reckless and indefensible" behavior.
Republican Senator Phil Gramm of the southwestern state of Texas, however, used a parliamentary maneuver that prevented the Senate from voting on Feinstein's measure. Gramm said the Democrats should not be given the opportunity to condemn Clinton after having voted him not guilty.
In defeat, the lead House prosecutor said his team had nothing to be ashamed of, rejecting any idea that the effort -- which proceeded despite public opposition -- tarnished its credibility. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde said: "All Americans can take great comfort. Congress has strengthened, not weakened the ties that bind our nation together."
While the Senate saved Clinton's presidency, the president is not out of legal trouble yet. He could face indictment, while in office or after his term, by Independent Prosecutor Starr. He must also complete his term trying to work with a Republican-dominated Congress that tried to throw him out of the White House.
On Friday, however, the drama that had preoccupied Washington for more than a year was put to rest and the capital city tried to return to normal life. Clinton prepared for an official visit to Mexico on Monday. The Senate and the House recessed for a week.