Clinton impeachment process starts

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON became the second president in 25 years to face impeachment hearings last night after the House of Representatives judiciary committee gave the green light to the proceedings that could force him from office.

The voting divided along party lines, with the 21 Republicans upholding a majority on the House of Representatives judiciary committee against strenuous opposition from the 16 Democrats, who wanted to limit the time and scope of the inquiry.

The Republicans also served a warning that they were in no mood to show mercy to an errant President, especially not so soon before congressional elections.

In a submission of unexpected sharpness, the Republicans' chief legal counsel, David Schippers, said that Mr Clinton could be liable to impeachment on four counts of conspiracy, in addition to the 11 counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power, set out by the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, in his report.

Mr Schippers said Mr Clinton may have "aided, abetted, counselled and procured Monica Lewinsky" to file a false affidavit (when she denied their relationship) and to obstruct justice in the sexual harassment suit brought against him by Paula Jones.

Referring to the copious volumes of supporting documents issued in the past two weeks, he said there was also evidence that the President tried to conceal these crimes. Conspiracy was not among the charges set out by Mr Starr.

The 37 members of the House judiciary committee had assembled yesterday in a chamber that reverberated with echoes of the Watergate investigation 24 years ago. It was only the third time that the committee had met to consider the impeachment of a President.

Proceedings were televised, and the imminence of the mid-term elections ensured that committee members spoke with an eye not just to history and the matter in hand, but also to their own election prospects.

Specifically, the committee had to decide whether Mr Starr had provided sufficient evidence of presidential misconduct in the Lewinsky affair to warrant further inquiry by Congress. Unspoken, but ever-present, was the question of what price President Clinton should have to pay for his Oval Office liaison.

"This will be an emotional process, a strenuous process, because feelings are high on all sides," said Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman.

Mr Hyde, who has ceased to be described by the media as "widely respected" after recent disclosures of an affair 30 years ago that broke up a young family, stressed that the point of the proceedings was not to judge the President's behaviour, but to "decide whether to look further or look away".

But the Democrats' lead speaker, John Conyers, who has been one of Mr Clinton's most forthcoming Congressional supporters over the past nine months, was adamant.

"This is not Watergate," he said. "It's an extra-marital affair ..." Only "a serious breach of official power", he argued, would constitute grounds for impeachment.

The punishment, other Democratic speakers argued, should "fit the crime" - although none of them picked up the suggestion of Richard Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, that Mr Clinton should appear before Congress for a public rebuke.

But the Republicans conceded little. "It is not for us to sit in judgement over the President's personal lifestyle," agreed James Rogan, a Californian Republican, but he quickly clarified: "This is a matter of the law."

"Can we sustain our constitutional form of government," asked Bill McCollum, of Florida, "without going forward at this point?" And what would the 115 Americans in prison for perjury say if the President went unpunished for the same crime?

"The truth matters," said Lamar Smith of Texas - in the only contribution to be applauded. "No President should tarnish our values and our ideals ... Honesty always counts."

t The White House chief-of-staff, Erskine Bowles, is to leave his post before the mid-term congressional elections next month, officials confirmed yesterday. Mr Bowles, who took the job at the start of 1997, had hinted of a return to his North Carolina home late last year, but then agreed to stay "for a long period of time". He is the second senior White House official to leave this autumn; the chief spokesman, Mike McCurry, departed last week.