Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday defiantly anointed his own replacement for Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, raising the stakes for a constitutional showdown with lawmakers and unexpectedly injecting the issue of race into a corruption drama that has complicated the president-elect’s transition.
Mr. Blagojevich brazenly named former state Attorney General Roland Burris to fill the seat left empty by Mr. Obama, but Senate Democratic leaders said they would try to refuse to seat Mr. Burris, who is black, solely because of the corruption charges filed against the governor early this month.
An angry Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, replied that Senate colleagues had better not block Mr. Burris, arguing that the all-white Senate would not want to be seen obstructing the only black member of the Senate from taking a seat, particularly because it’s Mr. Obama’s old slot.
“I don’t think that anyone, any U.S. senator, who’s sitting in the Senate, right now, wants to go on record to deny one African-American for being seated in the U.S. Senate,” Mr. Rush told reporters at the press conference that Mr. Blagojevich called to announce the Burris appointment.
But Mr. Obama himself said Mr. Burris, despite his record of accomplishment, cannot be seated.
“Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, 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 Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it,” the president-elect said in a statement while vacationing in Hawaii.
Senate Associate Historian Donald A. Ritchie said there’s no telling what will happen if Mr. Burris does try to take the seat when Congress convenes next week and senators try to block him.
“I’ll be darned if I can find a precedent,” he said.
In a joint statement issued just before the press conference, Senate Democratic leaders said they would reject Mr. Burris and indicated that they would make use of the Constitution’s Article I, Section 5 power that says the two houses of Congress can determine whom they seat.
“Anyone appointed by Governor Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic caucus,” said Democratic leaders, including Illinois’ senior senator, Richard J. Durbin, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Some lawyers and political scientists said Democrats may be wrong in assuming that they can refuse to seat someone duly appointed by the laws of his state.
“The Supreme Court case of Powell v. McCormack (1969) is clear that when judging the ‘qualifications’ of members, each house is limited to age, citizenship and residency qualifications. Burris meets all of these,” said Paul Sracic, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University.
However, the 1969 case dealt with an elected member of the House, while Mr. Burris was appointed in concurrence with Illinois law that requires the governor to fill the post.
A spokesman for Mr. Reid said the 1969 case doesn’t apply because senators are not judging the appointee himself, but rather the selection process.
Senators could decide to expel Mr. Burris, but there’s no modern precedent for that and it could ignite a protracted constitutional struggle.
Mr. Burris said he looks forward to filling Mr. Obama’s seat, though he did not have answers for how he would address Senate Democrats’ refusal to seat him or Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s announcement that he wouldn’t certify the pick.
“I’m honored, that I have been appointed. And we will deal with the next step in the process,” Mr. Burris said.
Mr. Burris, 71, served a term as state attorney general in the 1990s. He became the first black official elected to statewide office in 1978 when he won his first of three terms as state comptroller general.
Now a lawyer in private practice, he ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against Mr. Blagojevich in 2002 but has since donated money to Mr. Blagojevich’s campaigns and received business from the state.
Mr. Burris has not been implicated in the investigation into Mr. Blagojevich, and with the exception of Illinois Republicans who said he would continue the legacy of “Blagojevich Democrats,” there wasn’t much criticism of Mr. Burris. Mr. Burris would not say whether he will run in 2010, when the seat is up for election.
Mr. Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on charges of trying to sell the empty seat in exchange for a job or other consideration for himself or his wife. The governor has vowed to fight the charges and said Tuesday that they should not affect Mr. Burris.
“Don’t allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man,” Mr. Blagojevich said at an afternoon press conference, adding he was “absolutely confident” that the Senate would seat Mr. Burris.
Mr. Blagojevich’s attorney said earlier that the governor would not make an appointment, but on Tuesday, the governor said he was forced to change course after the legislature failed to create another way of picking a senator.
The Illinois legislature is moving on impeachment proceedings against Mr. Blagojevich, but rejected Republicans’ calls for a special election. Some Republicans have said their party could capture Mr. Obama’s seat in a special election.
The ongoing saga of the seat haunts Mr. Obama, even on his Hawaii vacation. He has been interviewed as a witness by prosecutors in the pay-to-play investigation, although the U.S. attorney heading the case has said they are not accusing the president-elect of wrongdoing.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, incoming chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign committee, said the Senate should block Mr. Burris from taking the seat.
“It´s time for the Democratic Party to do the right thing. The Senate should refuse to seat Mr. Burris, and then Senator Reid, Senator Durbin and all Senate Democrats should join Republicans in supporting a special election to fill this seat,” Mr. Cornyn said.
• Joseph Curl contributed to this report.