Illinois lawmakers were unanimous on how they should handle disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich — potential impeachment. And the embattled Democrat signaled he isn’t going down without a fight.
Lawmakers Monday quickly shelved the idea of setting a special election where voters would fill the vacant Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama — the seat the governor is accused of trying to sell before his arrest last week on federal corruption charges.
The Illinois House then voted 113-0 late Monday to create a bipartisan committee that will recommend whether Blagojevich should be impeached. The House reconvenes Tuesday.
“We ought to move as quickly as possible to correct our problems and to get ourselves on a track where we can do what we’re supposed to do for the people of Illinois,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and former co-chairman of Blagojevich’s re-election campaign who has become one of the governor’s fiercest critics.
Senate Democrats dropped any discussion of a special election, for now leaving any decision about the Senate seat in Blagojevich’s hands.
Blagojevich, who has ignored strident calls to resign from Obama and virtually every lawmaker in the state, defiantly signed 11 bills into law Monday — including one mentioned in the 76-page FBI complaint against him. And he hired a bulldog defense attorney, Ed Genson, with a history of taking tough cases to trial.
Meanwhile, Obama’s team said an internal review showed that Obama’s staff “was not involved in inappropriate discussions” with Blagojevich over the Senate seat. Obama, at a news conference in downtown Chicago, said details of the review were being withheld at the request of prosecutors so more interviews could be conducted.
Controversy has swirled around Obama and his incoming White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, following Blagojevich’s arrest. Critics want to know whether Emanuel had spoken with aides to the governor about the seat. Obama said the results of the investigation by his incoming White House counsel would be released “in due course.”
Blagojevich — arrested Dec. 9 after being under federal investigation for three years — appeared to be digging in for the legal and professional battles ahead.
“I think that the case that I’ve seen so far is significantly exaggerated,” said Genson, his new attorney. “It’s not what people think it is.”
At the Capitol, Madigan canceled plans to consider a special election to fill Obama’s seat, saying Democrats are split over the best way to fill the vacancy. The move sparked harsh criticism from Republicans.
“Why is it, when the whole world is watching, you can’t change your ways at least for one day and let democracy rule?” asked Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville.
Madigan said the committee’s review will include the criminal charges against Blagojevich as well as a long list of other possible wrongdoing during his six years in office: abuse of power, taking action without legal authority, ignoring state laws and defying lawful requests for information from the General Assembly.
The committee may well work through the holiday season, but it’s not clear how long it will take to produce a recommendation. That depends partly on whether the governor’s legal team takes part by questioning witnesses and presenting evidence, which would significantly lengthen the process.
Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said he didn’t know how Blagojevich will respond to the committee.
The state constitution gives lawmakers broad authority to impeach a governor. The House would decide whether to file charges against the governor, and the Senate would ultimately rule on them.
Madigan was careful not to call for Blagojevich’s resignation or say whether he thinks the governor should be impeached. Madigan said he would preside over any impeachment debate and so should stay neutral.
Madigan often has clashed with Blagojevich and said his staff has been studying impeachment for a year. His office produced a memo this summer outlining all the arguments legislative candidates could make in favor of impeachment.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, applauded Madigan’s handling of the impeachment committee but criticized him for postponing action on a special election, which Cross said would “begin the healing” in a state scarred by scandal.
Illinois Republicans are running television ads pressuring Democrats to approve a special election to replace Obama. If Blagojevich resigned, the power to appoint a new senator would go to Democratic Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn.
Republicans are eager to create a special election, which would give them a shot at winning a Senate seat that had been in Democratic hands. They argue that neither Blagojevich nor Quinn, his running mate in two elections, should be allowed to pick the new senator.
Democrats are divided. Some say a special election would shield the next senator from any suggestion of corruption, but others argue it would take months and cost between $30 million and $50 million. Some also want to avoid any risk of an election loss.