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Thursday, January 22, 1998 Published at 13:10 GMT

World: Analysis

Impeachment: the procedure explained

The latest allegations to hit Bill Clinton's roller-coaster ride of a presidency are among the most serious of his career. The allegations involve lying under oath about having a sexual relationship with a White House aide and then telling her to deny the relationship. This would constitute perjury, a federal crime, as well as obstruction of justice. If the allegations are true, and, more importantly can be proved, then they could lead to his impeachment. Gordon Corera looks at what might be involved.

The Constitution

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.'

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.

According to the Constitution, the House of Representatives has the sole power to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president. The issue has to go to the House Judiciary Committee and then a resolution of impeachment has to be passed by a simple majority of the House. 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.

Impeachment: 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.

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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