Balgojevitch to preside over Senate that will impeach him

Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 6:48 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 6:48 a.m.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. In an ironic, surreal scene, impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich will preside briefly over the chamber that holds his political future in its hands.

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David Ellis, chief attorney to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, announces he will prosecute the Blagojevich impeachment case before the Senate, at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009.

Seth Perlman/The Associated Press

On Wednesday, Blagojevich was to swear in the Illinois Senate, which will decide in a matter of weeks whether to throw the two-term Democrat out of office. The opening of a new legislative session is normally an upbeat occasion, but how the senators and the governor will respond this time is anyone's guess.

"On one hand, it's a time of great celebration here in the Senate of a new beginning and new leadership," said Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat. "On the other hand, there will be no denying the fact that the governor's participation in the proceedings will give it a character and flavor that many members would just as soon not experience."

Blagojevich was impeached by the House on Friday, more than a month after his arrest on federal charges that he tried to sell official government action including an appointment to President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat for campaign contributions or a plush job.

He is the state's first governor to face such censure and the first public official since a circuit judge in 1833 was impeached but acquitted. The Senate's trial is scheduled to start Jan. 26.

And nobody is certain how that will affect Wednesday's proceedings.

"The environment on Wednesday is going to be a tense one," said Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat. "The momentum builds up to that time. Hopefully we can get through that process without any incident."

The Illinois Constitution requires that the governor convene incoming Senates and preside until their members elect a leader. In this case, president Emil Jones of Chicago is retiring and Democrats have chosen John Cullerton of Chicago to lead the chamber's majority.

The full membership must endorse Cullerton and Blagojevich will be invited into the chamber to preside until then.

"The applause, which is traditionally kind of thunderous, will be very subdued," said Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont, who expects to become the Republican leader. "It will be out of respect for the office, certainly not out of respect for the individual."

Secretary of State Jesse White, who had refused to certify Blagojevich's appointment of Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate, was to call together the Illinois House.

White refused to sign Burris' appointment because of the allegations against Blagojevich in the criminal complaint, but the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the selection didn't need White's endorsement, clearing the way for Burris to be sworn in by Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday.

Some in Illinois' capital speculated that Blagojevich could refuse to lower the gavel on the new session no Senate convened, no impeachment trial, the thinking went.

But as unpredictable as Blagojevich can be, with the Senate proceeding looming and federal prosecutors moving toward an indictment and possible criminal trial, he has tried to show he's still in control as chief executive.

"The governor sees the swearing-in as his duty and obligation," spokesman Lucio Guerrero said. "It's part of his constitutional duties and he will carry them out."

Cullerton, the incoming president, says he hopes to move quickly with the impeachment trial and finish by Feb. 4.

"You don't want to have the cloud of an impeachment trial hanging over the normal, regular legislative session," he said.

Jones, leaving the Senate after 36 years in the General Assembly, has been Blagojevich's closest political ally, and has often sided with the governor over House Democrats, blocking progress on several issues. Jones called the allegations against Blagojevich shocking.

"Lawmakers are in a very, very difficult position," he said, "but I trust that whatever is done is done fair and because whatever they do here is going to have a tremendous impact on any future governor or any future General Assembly."

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