The Illinois legislature should quickly schedule a special election to fill President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat rather than leave that power in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's hands, Sen. Richard Durbin said Tuesday.
Blagojevich, a second-term Democrat, was arrested Tuesday by the FBI which alleged he sought favors to influence his choice for Obama's replacement.
"No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement," Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters in the Capitol.
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. He urged Illinois legislators to pass a bill, by a margin big enough to withstand a Blagojevich veto, to schedule a special election to fill the seat.
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, citing the innocence presumption.
However, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said the legislature should begin impeachment proceedings if Blagojevich does not resign promptly.
Durbin said his relationship with the governor has been cordial but not close. Blagojevich 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.
Durbin said Blagojevich's arrest should not cast a shadow over Obama's inauguration and early days as president because there was nothing improper in their relationship.
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 state legislature had not given the governor the power to fill a vacancy, said Senate associate historian Don Ritchie.
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 new 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.