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Angry Democrats On Blagojevich Appointment: It's Not About Race

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WASHINGTON — Rep. Bobby Rush says he doesn't think any U.S. senator would be caught turning a black man away from serving alongside them.

He thought wrong.

No Senate Democrat responded to his racial challenge. And they got support from President-elect Barack Obama, who ignored Rush and restored the framework of the dispute: alleged corruption of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"I believe the best resolution would be for the governor to resign his office and allow a lawful and appropriate process of succession to take place," Obama said in a statement that did not acknowledge Rush or his comments.

It was far from clear whether Democrats have the authority to keep former state attorney general Roland Burris out. The Constitution says that the Senate is the sole judge of whether its members are qualified to serve. But it's uncertain whether being appointed by someone accused of corruption is grounds for disqualification.

Several experts said the matter could end up in court.

Moot or not, Burris' designation touched off a dispute that threatened to turn racial.

Burris is black, a fact that Rush invoked early and often during a news conference Tuesday. The Illinois congressman dared Senate Democrats Tuesday to block Roland Burris from becoming the Senate's only black member, urging them not to "hang and lynch" the former state attorney general for Blagojevich's alleged misdeeds.

Obama, elected in November to be the nation's first black president, did not take the bait. Senate Democrats stood by their vow to block Burris from being seated.

"They cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat," Obama said in a statement. "I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it."

Burris is well-regarded in Illinois and has no connection to Blagojevich's alleged attempts to sell the seat Obama occupied until after his election to the White House. The question, still unanswered, is how a replacement will be picked and installed to represent the state alongside Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.

Republicans mostly were content to let Democrats deal with the spectacle unfolding in the new president's home state.

But in a telephone interview Wednesday with the Associated Press, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged watching the developments in Illinois with "great interest" and repeated the GOP's call for a special election to fill the seat.

"I think the whole process up there has been obviously tainted," McConnell said by phone from Kentucky.

Democrats have long said that Blagojevich's alleged corruption would strip anyone he might appoint of credibility. But while the governor holds office, filling the seat is his job unless he relinquishes it.

Blagojevich on Tuesday declared himself the decider, defying the leaders of his party and naming Burris, 71, the next senator from Illinois. At a news conference in Chicago, he urged the Senate not to allow the charges that he tried to sell the same Senate seat to taint a well-respected man.

Then Rush stepped up to the microphone to offer his challenge.

"Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the U.S. Senate," he began.

"I will ask you to not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer," he added. "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."

In an interview Wednesday, Burris didn't back away from Rush's assertion. "It is a fact, there are no African-Americans in the United States Senate," he said on NBC's "Today." "Is it racism that is taking place? That's a question that someone may raise."

Democrats needed no reminder that blocking a black man from replacing another in the overwhelmingly white Senate might not go over well on the eve of Obama's ascension to the White House.

Their statement earlier in the day contained a carefully crafted note of support for Burris personally, saying their refusal to seat him was a reflection of Blagojevich and no one else.

"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 people of the state of Illinois should not be denied representation" when the new Senate convenes in January, Rush said on CBS' "Early Show."

Democrats said the dispute is about the Senate's constitutionally granted power to decide who is seated as a member.

Burris said Wednesday that Blagojevich "has the constitutional and statutory authority to make those appointments ... and I have absolutely nothing to do with those problems."

"I will not be tainted because the governor has followed the constitution," Burris told NBC. "And I am confident that when all is said and done, I will be a United States senator."

Senate aides of both parties said the question of whether Burris gets seated next month is moot.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said Tuesday that he would not sign Burris' certification, as required by Senate rules.

If Burris does appear in Washington, senators could refuse to swear him in, or vote to expel him.

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Associated Press writers Libby Quaid and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report from Washington. Bruce Schreiner contributed from Louisville, Ky.