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Ill. House speaker launches impeachment panel

Speaker Michael Madigan announced Monday that he's appointing a special committee to review the case and recommend whether Gov. Rod Blagojevich should be impeached.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The speaker of the Illinois House is taking the first step toward possibly impeaching embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Speaker Michael Madigan announced Monday that he's appointing a special committee to review the case and recommend whether Blagojevich should be impeached.

Madigan says the committee will work every day except holidays.

"We're going to proceed with all due speed, but we're going to make sure that what we do is done correctly," the Chicago Democrat said.

Once the committee makes a recommendation, the full House will decide whether to file impeachment charges against the governor. The Senate ultimately would rule on them.

Blagojevich was arrested last week on federal corruption charges, including trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat.

Madigan said his staff has been reviewing the legal possibilities for impeachment for about a year. He cautioned that doesn't mean the House will be able to reach a quick decision.

Madigan did not join the chorus of officials calling for Blagojevich's resignation or say whether he thinks the governor should be impeached, saying he should remain neutral because he would preside over any impeachment debate.

But he did not back away from his role as one of the governor's harshest critics, saying he's not surprised by the federal allegations. Madigan, who once co-chaired Blagojevich's re-election campaign, often has refused to meet with Blagojevich or return his phone calls in recent months.

"I've had a chance to get to know Mr. Blagojevich over six years, so I was not surprised," Madigan said. "In light of what we've all seen ... how can anyone be surprised?"

Also Monday, in the first hint the embattled governor may loosen his grip on the seat, his spokesman said the governor hasn't ruled out signing a bill creating a special election to fill President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat.

While Blagojevich hasn't seen a proposed special election bill he hasn't ruled out the possibility of signing such a bill, spokesman Lucio Guerrero said early Monday without elaborating.

The governor, meanwhile, remained defiant and returned to work Monday to sign a tax credit bill after earlier seeing off his wife, Patti, and the couple's two daughters.

The Legislature was to meet Monday afternoon to consider special election legislation, but lawmakers also were likely to discuss impeaching Blagojevich.

"The General Assembly must move to impeach Rod Blagojevich immediately," said DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett, a potential Republican candidate for governor in 2010.

"We should have started yesterday," agreed Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat.

Guerrero hasn't responded directly to whether the governor could or would do anything to slow down the Legislature's move toward impeachment.

"The governor has indicated in the past there is more to this story that he's wanting to tell at an appropriate time," he said.

The calls for impeachment put the spotlight on Madigan, who ultimately will decide the timing of any impeachment effort.

David Dring, spokesman for House Minority Leader Tom Cross, said Republicans will step up the pressure on Democrats to remove Blagojevich, perhaps raising the issue on the House floor.

"If they won't work with us, you'll probably see some good theater," Dring said.

The GOP also plans to run 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.

Illinois Republican Party chairman Andy McKenna told reporters the ads will "make the point that this is the people's seat, and the people deserve a special election."

Madigan often has clashed with the Democratic governor, and his office produced a memo this year outlining all the arguments legislative candidates could make in favor of impeachment.

But spokesman Steve Brown wouldn't say Sunday whether Madigan was even considering impeachment proceedings. Brown said Madigan wants to "maintain some neutrality" in case he winds up presiding over an impeachment.

Madigan's daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, has asked the state Supreme Court to remove Blagojevich from office, claiming he is unfit to serve. Madigan said Sunday she expects word on whether the court will hear her request "probably just in a few days."

Lisa Madigan is considered one of the top Democratic candidates for governor in 2010.

The state constitution gives lawmakers broad authority to impeach a governor for any reason they consider sufficient. The House would decide whether to file charges against the governor, and the Senate would ultimately rule on them.

Democrats first made the call for a special election, but some are now having second thoughts.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, for instance, was an early supporter, but is now calling for Blagojevich to resign so that the lieutenant governor would make the appointment.

Opponents of a special election cite the time and expense. It would cost tens of millions of dollars and not produce a new senator until April.

Republicans claim Democrats are wavering because they don't want to risk a GOP candidate winning the special election.

At the Greater St. John Bible Church in Chicago, the Rev. Ira Acree, who met with Blagojevich at his home Friday morning, made only a passing reference to the governor in his sermon Sunday but told his congregation that he had prayed with the governor and that everyone deserves pastoral counsel.

"Pray for our state," Acree said. "No matter what your political position is, pray for our state."