WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and federal lawmakers maneuvered Wed- nesday to force Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich to step down after his arrest in a payoff scandal and prevent him from naming the president-elect's successor in the Senate.
Prosecutors say the governor tried to sell the Senate appointment as part of a "corruption crime spree."
Obama and Democrats in the Senate called for the governor's resignation. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and others said the Senate might block any Blagojevich appointee from taking office.
A leading contender for the seat, Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), said Wednesday that he would meet with prosecutors this week to share what he knew about the case. Jackson, who denied wrongdoing, has hired a Chicago lawyer to represent him.
The congressman, a son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, has been widely reported to be the man named in an FBI affidavit as "Senate Candidate 5," though he did not address the issue Wednesday. In wiretapped conversations, the governor said allies of "Senate Candidate 5" had promised to raise as much as $1 million for him in a "pay-to-play" trade for the appointment, the FBI said.
"I never sent a message or an emissary to the governor to make an offer, to plead my case or to propose a deal about a U.S. Senate seat, period," said Jackson, who met with Blagojevich about the Senate job Monday in Chicago. "I thought, mistakenly, that the process was fair, above board and on the merits."
Republicans, tainted by multiple scandals of their own in recent years, seized on the fresh allegations of graft in Obama's home state to question the reform credentials of the incoming president and his party.
"President-elect Barack Obama's carefully parsed and vague statements regarding his own contact and that of his team with Gov. Rod Blagojevich are unacceptable," said Robert "Mike" Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Prosecutors have not alleged improper conduct by Obama. Court papers quote the governor complaining that even if he were to appoint an Obama favorite to the Senate seat, the president-elect and his team were "not willing to give me anything except appreciation."
Blagojevich, who is free on bail, was charged Tuesday with conspiracy to commit fraud and solicitation of bribery. Prosecutors say he tried to trade the Senate appointment and other state favors for campaign money and high-paying jobs for himself and his wife.
Chased by reporters, Blagojevich, 52, left his home on Chicago's North Side on Wednesday morning and went to work as usual. "He's still the governor," spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said.
Quinn declined to comment about the calls for Blagojevich's resignation. She said she did not know whether the governor planned to name a Senate replacement for Obama.
Robert Gibbs, an Obama spokesman, said the president-elect thought "that under the current circumstances it is difficult for the governor to effectively do his job and serve the people of Illinois."
Obama called on state lawmakers to "put in place a process to select a new senator that will have the trust and confidence of the people of Illinois."
The Legislature plans to convene Monday to pass a bill calling for a special election to fill Obama's Senate seat. In theory, Blagojevich could veto the measure, and lawmakers could enact it through an override.
Lisa Madigan, the state attorney general, suggested other scenarios to block the governor from naming a senator: The Senate could choose not to seat his appointee; the Illinois secretary of state could refuse to certify the candidate; or the attorney general could seek a state Supreme Court declaration that Blagojevich was unfit for office.
Madigan identified herself as "Senate Candidate 2" in the wiretapped conversations, but said she actually had no interest in the job.
Another contender, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), acknowledged talking to Blagojevich about the seat.
"Probably all of it is on tape," she told MSNBC. "I thought at the time that I was a serious contender, but I realize now I probably wasn't because he never asked me for anything."
The charges against Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, include an attempt to shake down the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
Prosecutors say the duo threatened to deny state financing for the company's sale of the Chicago Cubs' stadium, Wrigley Field, unless the Tribune fired editorial writers unfriendly to the governor.
Tribune Co. Chief Executive Sam Zell told CNBC on Wednesday that the FBI had contacted him, but he offered no details.
Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern has denied that there was any corporate push to remove editorial writers. Zell said the FBI might be looking into whether such pressure occurred.
"As far as my knowledge is concerned," Zell said, "the Tribune did not respond at all."