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Wednesday, December 16, 1998 Published at 10:05 GMT

Impeachment: The process explained

Richard Nixon was the last president to face the threat of impeachment

By Gordon Corera and Jonathan Marcus

Impeachment was intended by the framers of the US Constitution as a way of removing office-holders for wrong-doing between elections.

The US Constitution provides that "the president ... shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanours."

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The constitution does not specify what the term "high crimes and misdemeanours" actually means, leaving it up to Congress, but almost everyone agrees that perjury and the obstruction of justice would qualify.

The role of the House of Representatives in the process is to draw up and vote on the articles of impeachment - which in effect are the charges. It is then up to the Senate to conduct a trial on the basis of these. This may lead to "conviction" and removal from office if a two thirds majority in the Senate votes "guilty" on any or all of the articles.

The key steps

  • The House of Representatives has the sole power to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president.

  • House Judiciary Committee develops "articles of impeachment", or charges.

  • House of Representatives votes on the resolution - simple majority required.

  • Once this has taken place, the matter is taken out of the hands of the lower house and goes to the upper house, the Senate.

  • The Senate has the sole power to decide the fate of the president. In impeachment proceedings, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial of the president in the Senate.

  • A two thirds majority of senators is required to successfully impeach the president who is then removed from office.

At the moment, both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans, opposed to Mr Clinton. The House is more right-wing than the Senate.

A few Republicans have tried to move impeachment resolutions during the Clinton presidency, but without support of the Republican leadership and they have never garnered significant support.

The history

Impeachment began in England 600 years ago. Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India, was impeached in 1788 on charges of corruption, but he was found innocent after a seven-year trial.

Only once in US history has Congress impeached a president. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his vice-president, Andrew Johnson became president.

Johnson proved antagonistic and obstructive to the process of reconstructing the US after its civil war and in 1868, the House of Representatives voted to impeach him.

But when proceedings moved to the Senate, the move failed by a single vote. Most historians agree that this was actually a good thing, as there was little evidence that Johnson had committed crimes, rather he had consistently obstructed and aggravated the wishes of Congress, a political not a criminal issue.

Nixon escapes

In 1974, President Nixon only avoided impeachment for the Watergate scandal by resigning.

Articles of impeachment had been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, charging the president with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and failure to comply with committee demands.

Once removed from office by impeachment, a president is then liable for normal criminal proceedings unless they are pardoned. Richard Nixon escaped this by being controversially pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford.

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