A panel of South Carolina lawmakers begins debating a measure today to impeach Gov. Mark Sanford for disappearing for five days in June and failing to put someone in charge of the state while he was in Argentina visiting his mistress.

The move comes one day after Sanford, a Republican and former congressman, was hit with 37 charges from the State Ethics Commission, some involving spending taxpayer money for expensive airline tickets in violation of state law, using state aircraft for personal travel, and reimbursing himself for personal expenses out of campaign funds. The charges carry a civil fine of as much as $74,000.

This afternoon seven lawmakers on the House Judiciary Panel will begin considering a Republican-sponsored measure that claims the governor was derelict in his duty and wrongly misled his staff into thinking he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Sanford's attorneys say he hasn't done anything that rises to the standard of impeachment.

If the impeachment measure passes the panel, it goes to the full Judiciary Committee. There it would need a majority vote of 25 members to get to the House floor, where passage requires a vote of two-thirds of the members. The Senate would make the final decision on whether Sanford would be removed from office, with a two-thirds vote required there as well.

While you might imagine that Democrats would be eager to see Sanford impeached, that's not necessarily the case. Consider this analysis by South Carolina progressive blogger Jamie Sanderson:
No matter what, the Republicans of this state know what an impeachment would do. It would take the heat off the legislators who need to be called out for allowing Sanford to get away with all he has. It would allow them to slip through and not be held on the votes to sustain Sanford's vetoes. They would go back to jobless districts and have nothing to worry about because the news of the day would be Sanford, not them.

Who would benefit from an impeachment? Republicans. All the way to the polls in 2010.

I ask my fellow Democratic lawmakers, friends and voters to not push for Sanford's impeachment. Push for Republicans to help with the jobless. Push for Republicans to quit grandstanding, attacking Obama and get to work on South Carolina's problems.
But an informal poll accompanying Sanderson's piece cross-posted at the liberal blog Daily Kos finds that most respondents want to see Sanford impeached. As one commenter wrote, "In the end, I think that it is more important to do what is right, rather than what might be politically expedient, so I have to say remove him from office."

Further complicating the politics of the Sanford imbroglio is the fact that criminal prosecution for the ethics charges rests with South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster -- who is running for Sanford's job. While state law allows McMaster to recuse himself and appoint a special prosecutor, he has not done so yet, The State newspaper reports:
"It's beginning to appear that politics is trumping prosecution," said Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former 5th Circuit solicitor who won the ethics conviction of ex-USC president Jim Holderman for using his office for personal gain.

Harpootlian said McMaster likely faces conflict since Sanford's removal would elevate a rival GOP candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. Harpootlian said McMaster should appoint a solicitor or two to mount a criminal investigation, making use of the state grand jury and putting a swift end to the saga.

"This is going to go on for months, whereas the attorney general or his designee could bring this to a close very quickly."