WASHINGTON – Brushing aside the objections of Democratic leaders, embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich selected former state attorney general Roland Burris to take the Senate seat previously held by President-elect Barack Obama, setting up a potential constitutional showdown.
In a raucous news conference in Chicago on Tuesday in which Blagojevich announced that he intended to name Burris to the seat, both men highlighted Burris’ potential to continue the legacy of an African American representing the state in the Senate.
“As governor, I am required to make this appointment. If I don’t make this appointment, then the people of Illinois will be deprived of their appropriate voice and vote in the United States Senate,” the governor said.
Blagojevich, a Democrat, played down efforts at the state Capitol to impeach him after federal officials charged him with trying to sell the appointment in exchange for personal financial assistance, and he asked Illinois voters not to “allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man.” Burris told reporters that he has “no relationship” with the Blagojevich scandal and vowed to “uphold the integrity of the office.” He declined to say whether he would pursue the full six-year Senate term in 2010.
In a joint statement, five Senate Democratic leaders vowed to block the appointment, arguing that Blagojevich is unfit to make the selection. “This is not about Mr. Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat. Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated,” the leaders said in a statement issued minutes before the governor’s announcement.
In a statement made in Hawaii, Obama called Burris “a good man and a fine public servant,” but the president-elect said he supports the position taken by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illionois and other Democratic leaders in opposing the selection.
Experts on congressional procedure said the Constitution gives the Senate wide power in determining who can be seated in the chamber, and some suggested that Democrats might decline to seat Burris while a Senate panel investigates the appointment process. Such a move might allow the Illinois legislature enough time to conclude its impeachment process, at which point Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn could assume the governor’s office and make his own appointment.
Senate rules also require the signature of the Illinois secretary of state, Jesse White, certifying the appointment, and Tuesday White indicated that he did not plan to sign the certification.
Burris, 71, is a Chicago native who was the first African American elected to statewide office in Illinois, winning a race for comptroller in the late 1970s. After three terms overseeing the state’s finances, he served a four-year term as attorney general before running unsuccessfully in the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary. That was the first of three unsuccessful bids for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, the last of which came in 2002, when Burris finished third in a contest that Blagojevich won. Obama, then a state senator, backed Burris in that race. For the past decade, Burris has been a partner in a consulting firm and law firm.