WASHINGTON - The word "impeachment" is popping up increasingly these days and not just off the lips of liberal activists spouting predictable bumper-sticker slogans.
After the unfounded claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and recent news of domestic spying without warrants, mainstream politicians and ordinary voters are talking openly about the possibility that President Bush could be impeached. So is at least one powerful senator, Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
So far, it's just talk. With Republicans controlling Congress, and memories still fresh of the bitter fight and national distraction inflamed by former President Clinton's 1998 impeachment, even the launching of an official inquiry is a very long shot.
But a poll released last week by Zogby International showed 52 percent of American adults thought Congress should consider impeaching Bush if he wiretapped U.S. citizens without court approval, including 59 percent of independents and 23 percent of Republicans. (The survey had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.)
Given those numbers, impeachment could become an issue in this fall's congressional elections, and dramatically raise the stakes. If Democrats win control of the House of Representatives, a leading proponent of starting an official impeachment inquiry, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., would become chairman of the House committee that could pursue it.
Conyers introduced legislation last month to create a special panel to investigate the Bush administration's alleged manipulation of pre-Iraq war intelligence and "make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment."
He's not the only one dropping the "I word." A day later, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., wrote to four presidential scholars asking whether domestic spying by the National Security Agency was an impeachable offense.
Former Vice President Al Gore said last week that the NSA wiretapping could be an impeachable offense.
Bush contends that he holds authority as commander in chief to order the eavesdropping on international calls of terrorism suspects without court approval. He also claims that Congress' resolution authorizing him to use force against terrorists implicitly authorized his NSA spying.
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But a 1978 law requires court-issued warrants for wiretapping people in the United States. And many in Congress, along with the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, said Bush is on shaky legal ground in ordering NSA spying without warrants as required by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Tucker Bounds, a Republican National Committee official, said impeachment talk is "nonsense."
But asked Jan. 15 what recourse there would be if Bush broke or ignored the law in authorizing wiretaps, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Specter mentioned impeachment.
"I'm not suggesting remotely that there's any basis, but you're asking, really, theory, what's the remedy?" he said on ABC's This Week. "Impeachment is the remedy."
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said of a Bush impeachment, "I'm not saying it would happen, but I think it should be explored." She was one of a handful of House members to co-sponsor Conyers' bill, which is unlikely to get a hearing or vote as long as Republicans rule the House of Representatives.
Stanford University historian Jack Rakove, a constitutional expert, said breaking the law on domestic spying would qualify as an impeachable offense, but that Congress should be hesitant to pursue it. The Clinton impeachment was a major distraction for the nation, he said. Some have suggested it hurt the U.S. effort against al-Qaida before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Despite such concerns, some liberal activists say it's time to impeach Bush. Bob Fertik, president of Democrats.com, has formed ImpeachPAC to fund campaigns of congressional candidates who support impeachment. It has raised more than $52,000 in 10 weeks.
"If the truth comes out," Fertik said, "there will be an open-and-shut case for a high crime of breaking the law."