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Senators call appointment unwelcome

Illinois' governor moves to fill Obama's seat despite his own legal troubles and Democratic warnings.

December 31, 2008|Ray Long and Rick Pearson

CHICAGO — Brushing aside charges that he tried to sell Illinois' vacant U.S. Senate seat, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich appointed former Illinois Atty. Gen. Roland Burris to the post Tuesday in defiance of Senate leaders who said they would not admit anyone the governor selected.

The governor's action amounts to an abrupt about-face for Blagojevich, who had said after his Dec. 9 corruption arrest that he favored a special election for a successor to President-elect Barack Obama.

But the governor said at a news conference announcing his selection of Burris that he had to make an appointment because the state's General Assembly refused to approve a special election.

Senate Democratic leaders say that it is not Blagojevich's choice for Obama's replacement, but rather the tainted governor himself, that prevents them from accepting Burris.

"This is not about Mr. Burris. It is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat," several senators said in a statement issued Tuesday. "Anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus."

"Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant," Obama said in a statement issued Tuesday, "but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Gov. Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it."

Blagojevich maintains that he is innocent in the corruption scandal and says that his nominee should stand on his own merits.

"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man," Blagojevich said in introducing Burris.

Blagojevich's move appeared designed to trump fellow Democrats who control the Senate. His choice of Burris, the first African American elected statewide in Illinois, presents senators with the difficult prospect of saying no to a black replacement for Obama, who was the nation's only black senator.

That point was driven home at the news conference by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who said it was a matter of national importance that an African American replace Obama in the Senate.

"Let me just remind you that there presently is no African American in the Senate," Rush said. "I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer. . . . Roland Burris is worthy."

Although Democrats vow not to seat a Blagojevich appointee, it is not clear whether they have the legal authority to block one who is fully qualified.

The senators pointed to a provision in the Constitution that states: "Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members."

In the past, when faced with a disputed election, senators have called upon the rules committee to look into the issue. After an investigation, the panel can recommend to the full Senate whether the candidate should be seated.

The Supreme Court has said the Senate and House cannot refuse to seat new members who meet all qualifications for office. In 1969, it rebuked the House for refusing to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a Democrat from New York who was reelected despite being accused of ethical lapses.

The constitutional standard for House and Senate "is identical," the court said, but it did not consider whether an appointed senator has different standing than one who is elected.

The Senate Democratic leadership's statement rejecting the governor's appointment was signed by Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who has repeatedly urged Blagojevich not to name a replacement for Obama.

The decision was made during a 10-minute conference call that included Durbin, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and representatives of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). An aide reported little discussion and no dissent.

At the same time, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, an African American who is one of the state's most popular vote-getters, said he would refuse to certify Burris. Yet White's aides acknowledged that the lack of a signature on the form was symbolic and would have no practical effect.

"We feel the governor can still take the appointment to the Senate," White spokesman David Druker said.

In accepting Blagojevich's appointment, Burris said he would deal with White's action and the Democratic leadership's vow to block him.

"Faced with these challenges and challenged with these crises, it is incomprehensible that the people of the great state of Illinois will enter the 111th Congress short-handed," Burris said. "We need leadership in Washington."

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