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U.S. News

High drama in Illinois over Obama Senate seat

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Criticism rained down on embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Wednesday for his defiance in appointing the state’s new U.S. Senator, but doubts persisted that anyone could block the move.

“It’s off the rails. What else could be crazier?” said Richard Epstein, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago.

Blagojevich, who was arrested on December 9, ignored warnings from within his own party on Tuesday by appointing a successor to fill President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat -- the seat the governor has been charged by federal prosecutors with trying to sell to the highest bidder.

“State of Disbelief” read the headline in the Chicago Sun-Times over a full-page photograph of the governor with Roland Burris, 71, the former Illinois attorney general, fellow Democrat and frequent candidate whom he appointed to the seat.

“Blagojevich has demonstrated he’s totally unpredictable,” said Mike Lawrence, who recently retired from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Obama called for the governor to resign and backed U.S. Senate leaders who vowed to block Burris from assuming office. The governor sent a formal proclamation on the appointment to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday. But Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White refused to sign the document, which analysts said might stall the move.

The governor, who has denied the corruption charges, is facing impeachment in the Illinois legislature in the state capital of Springfield where hearings resume next week.

Blagojevich, a Democrat in his second term, has yet to be formally indicted. Prosecutors, who admitted having rushed into charging the governor, on Wednesday asked the court for a 90-day extension to formally indict Blagojevich, who has been under investigation since his first term in 2003.

Prosecutors said in a court filing they needed the extension to review a large volume of tape-recorded conversations and because witnesses were still coming forward.

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Burris said the criminal charges against the governor, which he agreed were serious, had “nothing to do” with him and the appointment was perfectly legal.

WHAT COULD SENATE DO?

“Burris has a good record in public office but he is someone who enjoys the limelight and loves being a player,” Lawrence said. “I think he’s being used in this situation.”

If Burris does show up at the U.S. Senate on January 6 when newly elected members will be sworn in, lawmakers might refuse to administer the oath and refer the matter to a Senate committee to conduct an investigation, a Democratic aide said.

But what the Senate could do was among a number of unanswered questions.

“It’s not at all clear that they can force their way into this situation,” said Epstein, noting the U.S. Constitution gives senators power to exclude someone who lacks credentials but it does not address this particular situation.

History also does not provide much guidance.

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Congress’s other chamber, the House of Representatives, could not bar a duly elected member. A Democratic leadership aide insisted the House and Senate have different rules.

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The saga could still take numerous twists, many of which could end in court if Burris or Blagojevich, both lawyers, decide to sue, analysts agreed.

Besides the political implications, the appointment carried racial overtones as well. Burris is black and seeks to replace the only black in the 100-member Senate.

“My sense is that this will sort itself out and the Senate will be the final arbiter of it all,” said Dick Simpson, a political analyst at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The governor will be impeached by the legislature, I don’t think there’s much doubt of that,” he said.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn, a Democrat who has been a leading voice urging Blagojevich resign, would then become governor and could make his own appointment, tossing it back to the Senate.

Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro in Washington; Editing by Peter Bohan and Cynthia Osterman

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