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Illinois Scandal Rocks Politics

Federal corruption charges brought against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) on Tuesday threw the process for filling President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat into turmoil, with Democrats in Washington, D.C., and Illinois calling for a special election to pick Obama’s replacement.

Leaders in the Illinois House and Senate plan to reconvene their chambers as early as Monday to consider legislation that would change the way that a vacant Senate is filled in the Land of Lincoln — from a gubernatorial appointment to a special election. Given the cloud of corruption surrounding Blagojevich and the appointment process, Illinois sources say the special election legislation is likely to pass.

Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested Tuesday and charged with selling the Senate appointment, among other “pay to play” schemes — part of an ongoing federal investigation into the two-term governor and former Congressman.

The scandal has wide-ranging implications — not just for Blagojevich and the people who want to replace Obama in the Senate, but for the president-elect; his designated White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who is Blagojevich’s successor in Congress; and for a host of other politicians in the Land of Lincoln.

Republicans quickly sought to exploit the scandal, suggesting Obama’s Senate seat represents a real pickup opportunity for them if he is replaced in a special election.

At a Chicago news conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was quick to say Obama and other officials referenced in the charging documents were not implicated in the scandal. But he was withering in his criticism of Blagojevich, calling the governor’s conduct “appalling.”

“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Fitzgerald said.

Support for a special election started on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for a special contest to fill Obama’s Senate seat, followed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) suggestion that “a different process” that does not involve Blagojevich must be used to fill the vacancy.

Blagojevich still holds the office until he resigns or is impeached, which could mean he could be faced with having to sign or veto special election legislation next week.

At least one Illinois state House Democrat reportedly plans to begin impeachment proceedings as soon as possible. What’s more, a spokesman for state Speaker Mike Madigan (D) said that if the governor were to veto the special election legislation, the Legislature would likely be able to override the veto under the circumstances.

But according to one published report, a statewide special election could cost as much as $50 million to administer — and that could give state lawmakers pause in these hard economic times.

A special election could throw a safe seat for Democrats into total chaos, plus give Republicans a rare shot at a statewide office. And this time the usual suspects for a statewide bid could actually be suspects in the federal probe.

Blagojevich named some potential Senate appointments in his phone conversations taped by federal investigators, according to the affidavit. In particular, Blagojevich discussed one potential appointee, known as “Senate Candidate 5” in the complaint, as being willing to raise money for the governor if he appointed that candidate to the Senate seat.

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