By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2008; A01
Brushing aside the objections of Democratic leaders, embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich selected former state attorney general Roland W. Burris yesterday 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 in which Blagojevich (D) announced that he intended to name Burris to the seat, both men highlighted Burris's 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 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 issued 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 M. Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and other Democratic leaders in opposing the selection.
"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. I believe the best resolution would be for the Governor to resign his office," Obama said.
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 (D) 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 yesterday 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.
Burris does not appear to have deep or longtime connections to Blagojevich, nor was he among the five candidates the governor and his top aide were heard discussing as potential appointees on FBI surveillance recordings, portions of which were included in criminal filings accusing the governor of several felonies. For the past decade, Burris has been a partner in a consulting firm and a law firm that have received some government work, mostly, he said, to ensure that the state government was complying with regulations requiring that a certain portion of its contracts are awarded to minority-owned businesses.
Burris's consulting firm contributed about $11,000 to Blagojevich's gubernatorial campaigns in 2002 and 2006, according to records compiled by the Better Government Association, an Illinois watchdog.
Late in yesterday's news conference, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) emerged from the audience and joined Burris and Blagojevich on stage, saying "thank God" for the selection and adding that the appointee does not have "one iota of taint on his record."
Despite the objections of Senate Democrats, Rush said he would mount a campaign to make sure that an African American keeps the seat, citing the fact that Obama's departure from the chamber last month meant the Senate was without a single black member.
"This is a matter of national importance. There are no African Americans in the Senate, and 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. I don't think they want to go on record doing that," Rush said.
Since the direct election of senators began in 1913, the Senate has refused to seat just four people, according to the chamber's historical office. All such incidents were related to ethical allegations directly connected to the person.
Rep. Danny K. Davis, a six-term Democrat, told the Associated Press last night that he met with a Blagojevich emissary twice last week. After thinking the proposal over, Davis said he turned down the appointment on Sunday. Burris said in the news conference that he was offered the job Sunday night.
"I thought the environment had been poisoned," said Davis, who is black. "The environment was just a bit too murky, and it was not the kind of environment I would want to go into the Senate with."
Robert Walker, the former chief counsel of the Senate ethics committee, said Reid and Durbin are entering an "uncharted area" by casting the corruption allegations of Blagojevich onto his appointee. "We all think, as a moral matter, the governor ought not do what he's doing. But as long as he is there -- and he is still governor -- he can do what he's doing. They will have to view the appointee as somehow participating in the corruption," said Walker, now in private practice at Wiley Rein.
Walker and Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), both suggested that the appointment could be referred to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee for an investigation before any decision is made about Burris. The Senate has done that with contested election outcomes in the past, and doing so probably would prevent Burris or Blagojevich from taking up the matter in courts, Ueland said.
"The Senate, basically as a practical matter, is going to do what it wants to do," Walker said.
In Washington, Republicans accused Reid of "playing politics" after he moved this month to stop the state legislature from considering legislation to create a special election to succeed Obama. "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," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Burris said there will be too many critical issues when the Senate convenes next week for Illinois to be "short-handed."
"I welcome the challenge that awaits us in the 111th Congress," he said. "I am humbled to have the opportunity."