Blagojevich Appoints Burris To Senate Seat

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Gov. Rod Blagojevich named former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris as his choice to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. Blagojevich faces criminal charges alleging he previously tried to sell that seat.


Just about half an hour ago, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich made an unexpected announcement.

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): So, I'm here today to announce that I am appointing Roland Burris as the next United States Senator from Illinois. He has had a long and distinguished career serving the people of Illinois. He will be a great United States Senator.

CONAN: The elephant in that room in Chicago, of course, is that Governor Blagojevich faces criminal charges that include allegations that he tried to sell that very appointment to the highest bidder. And Senate leaders - Democrats - have already vowed to reject anyone that Governor Blagojevich appoints. NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving joins us here in studio 3A to talk about this. Ron, thanks very much for coming in.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you Neal.

CONAN: And is this as brazen a move as it appears?

ELVING: Yes, it is as brazen a move as one could imagine. Here's a governor who has been urged to resign by everyone in politics in Illinois, more or less, and who has been urged to resign by every Democratic senator in the United States Senate, bar none. He has been urged not to make this specific appointment or to make any appointment and he has been told that the Senate will not seat anyone he appoints. And he goes ahead and does it anyway.

CONAN: And who has he named?

ELVING: He has named Roland Burris, who is a very familiar figure in Chicago politics. And by the way - full disclosure - I grew up in Chicago and attended Budlong grammar school on Foster Avenue. And this is a man everyone in Chicago knows. He was the first statewide elected African-American political figure. He was the state comptroller, going back all the way to 1979, and he held that office for twelve years. He was the state's first African-American attorney general in the early 1990s.

He's also run for a number of offices he did not win. He was denied the Democratic nomination for the senate in 1984, three times for the governorship, including most recently, when he ran against Rod Blagojevich and for mayor in 1995. So he's become something of a perennial candidate and he is now in his 70s.

CONAN: Given that pedigree though, isn't it going to be difficult for the United States Senate to sit there and say, I'm sorry, we're going to reject you?

ELVING: It isn't just the pedigree. Also, Bobby Rush, a Congressman from Chicago's south side, got up at the end of this news conference and made an extraordinarily blatant point about this being the only African-American in the United States Senate, if he is seated, and it being a non-integrated, if you will, United States Senate, if Ronald Burris is refused. So, he put the gauntlet of race right squarely in front of the United States Senate, which Rod Blagojevich had not been quite so obvious about. But Bobby Rush made sure that was smack in everybody's face.

CONAN: And so, clearly Governor Blagojevich is not without political support, but what could possibly be the motivation for Mr. Burris to accept this appointment, which - it's hard to see it would bear fruit?

ELVING: Well, as I say, he has tried five times for the Democratic nomination for offices more covetable than the ones that he has already held - governor, senator, mayor - and he made it clear earlier this month, when virtually everyone else on the political landscape ran away from Rod Blagojevich and said well, however interested I might have been in being an appointed United States senator before, now that we know that this office was up for auction, I'm not interested and I don't want to talk about it. Well, Roland Burris made a point at the time of saying well, I'm still interested. So, in that room of not very many people, he was still available.

CONAN: And as we look ahead to this, what is the process? Governor Blagojevich has to name him? Does he go through any state office before he comes to Washington and is there a vote on the floor of the senate? What happens?

ELVING: The secretary of state is required, in the state of Illinois, to make a certification with respect to this appointment and that official has already said that that's a non-starter. So, there will be some legal question, I believe, before the issue actually arrives at the United States Senate, so that may be something of a buffer for Harry Reid and the rest of the Democrats. And by the way, the number two Democratic leader in the Senate is Dick Durbin.

CONAN: The other senator from Illinois.

ELVING: That is correct, and someone who has been friends with Roland Burris and Bobby Rush for a very long time and whom they consider to be a confidante. They think maybe they can turn him. Thus far, he's standing with Reid and the rest of the Democratic senators.

CONAN: Well, stay tuned for more on this later today. From NPR News, Ron Elving, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor with us here in studio 3A.

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Defiant Blagojevich Bids To Fill Obama Senate Seat

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday appointed a former state attorney general to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, triggering a fight with fellow Democrats who immediately insisted the embattled governor's choice will never be seated.

Blagojevich announced the appointment of 71-year-old Roland Burris at a news conference in Chicago. He said Burris — a former rival for the governor's office — has had a distinguished career of public service and the people of Illinois deserve to have no delay in regaining full representation in the U.S. Senate.

"He will be a great U.S. senator," said Blagojevich, who was arrested on public corruption charges earlier this month — chief among them that he tried to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. "Don't allow the allegation against me to taint this good and honest man."

In Washington, D.C., Senate Democrats said Burris will not get the chance to serve.

"It is truly regrettable that despite warning from all 50 Democratic senators and public officials throughout Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich would take the imprudent step of appointing someone to the United States Senate who would serve under a shadow and be plagued by questions of impropriety," the Senate Democratic leadership said in a statement Tuesday.

The statement said Democrats were not objecting to Burris, but rather to the fact that Blagojevich was making the decision.

"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 by the Democratic Caucus," the Democrats said in the statement.

Burris was on hand to immediately accept the appointment. "I accept this appointment to fill the unexpired term of President-elect Barack Obama," he told the gathering. "I am humbled to have the opportunity."

He brushed aside questions about the allegations against Blagojevich, saying the governor had not been proved guilty in court. He also acknowledged that his lobbying firm donated money to Blagojevich's campaign fund and has done work for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Blagojevich's decision to appoint a senator despite the governor's ongoing problems with corruption allegations raised the ire of many Democrats. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said he will block Burris from taking the seat by refusing to certify the appointment.

But U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Chicago, said the U.S. Senate does not currently have any black members, and he does not believe that anyone would want to go on record opposing Burris.

"Roland Burris is worthy. He has not, in 20 years of public service, had one iota of taint on his record," said Rush. "I applaud the governor for his decision, and I would ask you not to hang or lynch that appointee as you castigate the appointer."

The state legislature has moved to impeach Blagojevich, and federal officials have said they will attempt to freeze money in the governor's campaign account in an attempt to prevent him from using the money for his criminal defense.



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