Huffpost Chicago

Durbin Urges Special Election For Obama's Seat After Blagojevich Charges

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Top Illinois lawmakers said Tuesday that they are preparing to call the Legislature into session as early as next week to set a special election, hoping to avert the possibility of their embattled governor picking the state's next U.S. senator.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he is ready to convene the House on Monday to vote on a special election that would choose the successor to President-elect Barack Obama.

The move follows the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was taken into custody early Tuesday and accused of seeking money or other favors to influence his choice in picking Obama's replacement.

"Today's events are shocking and disappointing. It represents a new low for conduct by public officials," Madigan said in a statement.

Illinois Senate President Emil Jones said he would also call senators back for a special session in the corruption-plagued state.

"The faith of the citizens of Illinois has once again been shaken," Jones said.

Aides to Jones and Madigan said the leaders envision a permanent change in the way Senate vacancies are filled so that all future appointments could be settled by special election.

The governor, who faces fraud and bribery counts, was freed on $4,500 bail. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., urged the state House and Senate to settle on a special election that could withstand a Blagojevich veto.

"No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement," Durbin told reporters in Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made similar remarks and called for a process to fill the vacancy that does not involve Blagojevich. The charges against the governor, Reid said, "are appalling and represent as serious a breach of the public trust as I have ever heard."

Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democratic leader, said his state faces a messy and uncertain future with Blagojevich holding the power to name someone to finish the last two years of Obama's term.

Special elections are costly, Durbin acknowledged, but it might be coupled with a special election that will be needed to replace Rep. Rahm Emanuel. The Chicago Democrat will resign his seat soon to become Obama's White House chief of staff.

The Constitution requires House vacancies to be filled by elections. Senate vacancies can be filled by appointment, and Illinois, like most states, gives the power to the governor.

Blagojevich must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, Durbin said, but if the charges against him are true, "he has clearly abused the public trust." He did not call for the governor to resign but added: "If you are asking me if it would be in the best interests of the state to have a different person or governor, the answer is 'yes.'"

Blagojevich also waited 12 days to return Durbin's recent phone call requesting a discussion of the Obama vacancy, Durbin said.

The two men discussed about 20 possible replacements, Durbin said, and Blagojevich made no hint that he was seeking payments or other favors in making his choice.

The two men discussed about 20 possible replacements, Durbin said, and Blagojevich made no hint that he was seeking payments or other favors in making his choice.

Durbin said neither man advocated a particular candidate for the job.

"I told him my criteria," Durbin recalled. "I want someone who will take the seat and run for election. I want the appointment to be made sooner rather than later for seniority."

Durbin said he worried that Obama's former seat could remain vacant for months. With Senate Democrats only a few votes short of a filibuster-proof majority in the Congress that will convene next month, a vacancy could make it harder to pass Obama-backed measures "during a critical period in American history," Durbin said.

The Senate could refuse to seat a person appointed by Blagojevich. Several would-be senators have been rejected that way, usually when their election was corrupted or deeply in question.

The last appointed person to be refused a seat came from Alabama in 1913, when the Senate concluded the Legislature had not given the governor the power to fill a vacancy, said Senate associate historian Don Ritchie.

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Associated Press writer Chuck Babington in Washington contributed to this report.