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.