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A Primer on the Impeachment Process

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Helen Dewar and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page A19

    The House will convene Thursday to vote on whether to impeach President Clinton, marking the first time in 130 years that the full House has considered the impeachment of a president. If the House approves any of the four articles approved last week by its Judiciary Committee, the Senate would then hold a trial, which could result in Clinton's conviction and removal from office. The Senate could also consider a lesser penalty. Here are some of the questions that have arisen about procedures in both chambers:

    What is in the impeachment resolution?

    The resolution passed by the House Judiciary Committee last week contains four separate articles of impeachment: two charging the president with perjury, and one each charging obstruction of justice and abuse of power. The impeachment is the political equivalent of an indictment. It does not remove the president from office, but it is an affirmation by the House that "such conduct warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States."

    What happens before the debate?

    The Judiciary Committee's Republican majority must file a report summarizing its findings and its reasons for impeachment by midnight tonight. The Democratic minority will file minority views to accompany the main document. On Wednesday, House members will gather in Washington for party caucuses and will be briefed on floor procedures.

    How will impeachment be debated?

    The impeachment articles are contained in a "privileged resolution" that under normal circumstances would be debated for one hour before a vote. The House Rules Committee and the Republican leadership are discussing ways that this procedure will be changed. Although the final shape of the debate is not known, it appears almost certain that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who will manage the bill, will ask for "unanimous consent" that the time for debate be substantially extended to give as many members as possible the opportunity to speak.

    Debate will be divided equally between impeachment's proponents and opponents. There will not be separate discussion of individual impeachment articles, but the House will vote separately on each one. Each article must be approved by a simple majority of the House's 435 members. If no article is approved, impeachment is finished.

    What must the House do if impeachment passes?

    If an article is approved, the president is considered "impeached," and notice must be prepared to send the impeachment to the Senate for trial. To do so, the House must pass three additional resolutions. The first would be the appointment of "managers," or prosecutors for the Senate trial. Hyde will almost certainly be the principal manager.

    The second resolution would send a formal message to the Senate notifying it of the intention to impeach and listing the names of the managers. The third resolution would authorize certain other House actions, principally funding for the House's prosecution of the case.

    Will there be a House vote on a censure resolution?

    Only obliquely. According to the Republican leadership, House rules do not permit censure to be presented as an "alternative" privileged resolution on the House floor, and Republicans oppose any other mechanism that would enable censure to be considered. Nevertheless, House Democrats intend to force a vote.

    After the House has finished debating the impeachment resolution, but before any votes are taken, the opposition may offer a motion to send the bill back to committee, known as a "motion to recommit." The motion will probably be offered by the Democratic leadership and accompanied "with instructions" to amend the resolution. The amendment would be a censure resolution.

    At that point, a supporter of impeachment would likely raise a point of order that censure is "not germane" to the underlying impeachment resolution, and the Republican chairman will almost certainly agree. The Democrats will "appeal the ruling of the chair," the Republicans will "move to table," or kill, the appeal, and there will be a vote on tabling.

    That vote, Democrats say, will be tantamount to a vote on censure, for if the motion to table fails, then a subsequent vote appealing the ruling would almost certainly succeed, as would the third vote to recommit with instructions. The impeachment resolution would be replaced by one on censure.


    Can the Senate proceed next year with a trial based on impeachment by a lame-duck House this year?

    Yes, according to the Congressional Research Service and at least one recent precedent involving impeachment of a federal judge. But parliamentary experts say that a House resolution appointing "managers," or prosecutors, for a Senate trial would have to be passed again after the newly elected House is sworn in Jan. 6. If impeachment is approved by only a narrow margin, reappointment of managers might fail in the new House, where the Republican margin of control will drop from 11 to six votes. Without prosecutors, there can be no trial.

    Is the Senate required to hold a trial if the House votes to impeach and fulfills requirements for appointment of managers?

    While the Senate can theoretically refuse to do so, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has said it will proceed to a trial early next year; Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the Senate's leading authority on its own rules, has said the Senate is obligated to try any charges approved by the House. But the Senate can dismiss the charges or simply adjourn the trial at any point during the proceedings, even at the start, according to parliamentary authorities.

    Will the Senate consider censure or some other alternative to conviction?

    Many senators have said yes, although it is not clear when this might occur or what form it would take. Even many of those who have opposed censure in the House say it would be proper in the Senate. Officials have said the Senate could probably move to consideration of censure at any point in the proceedings.

    What would a trial look like?

    The Senate is currently in recess, and Lott has said it will not return until new members are sworn in Jan. 6. In the meantime, any impeachment papers referred by the House will be kept by Secretary of the Senate Gary L. Sisco. When the Senate reconvenes, it would officially receive the impeachment papers from the House and begin the preliminaries, including setting a trial date, allotting time for a White House response and House counter-response and summoning Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to preside over the trial, as required by the Constitution.

    Later, motions, probably including one to dismiss the trial, would be considered, followed by standard courtroom-like trial proceedings, including examination and cross-examination of witnesses and closing arguments from lawyers. Clinton could appear personally or leave his defense in the hands of lawyers. Senators would remain silent, directing all questions in writing to Rehnquist. Deliberations on a verdict would be conducted behind closed doors, with speeches limited to 15 minutes per senator. The verdict would be voted in open session, however. Upon conviction of even one article, Clinton would be removed from office and succeeded by Vice President Gore.

    How long would a trial take?

    There is no time limit, and the procedure is fraught with opportunities for delay. Lott suggested at one point that the trial could be completed in three weeks; others have said it could take most of the year. Lott has said the Senate could conduct other business during the trial, but Democrats fear this would reduce pressure for a prompt conclusion.

    What are the rules, procedures and standards?

    There are 26 written rules, drafted for the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and updated after the Watergate scandal in 1974, covering everything from the oath that senators would take (to administer "impartial justice") to a requirement that senators stand by their chairs when they vote.

    But there are larger questions that remain unanswered, including the rules of evidence, burden of proof and even the definition of perjury, which is the subject of two of the four articles approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Rehnquist would rule on these questions but could be overruled by a majority vote of the Senate.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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