Politics & Government

Obama to step down from Senate seat Sunday

CHICAGO — President-elect Barack Obama is giving up his Illinois U.S. Senate seat effective Sunday, intensifying the jockeying to replace the only African-American in Congress' upper chamber as lawmakers return next week for a lame-duck session.

Several Illinois politicians want the job, including at least three members of Congress. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who's also a Democrat, will appoint the successor of his choice to fill out the remaining two years of Obama's six-year term.

Obama, who was in private meetings in Chicago preparing for the transition, said in a statement Thursday that his partial term as a senator had been "one of the highest honors and privileges of my life."

"It is these Illinois families and their stories that will stay with me as I leave the United States Senate and begin the hard task of fulfilling the simple hopes and common dreams of all Americans as our nation's next president," he said.

He didn't discuss the timing of his departure. Theoretically, it could make Democrats more vulnerable to a filibuster if the Senate were to need an extra vote next week or before the year's end on any contentious proposals such as aid to automakers.

However, Obama's transition staff already had said that he didn't intend to participate in the lame-duck session. Democratic and Republican aides in the Senate said Thursday that they didn't expect to see votes that would hinge on Obama's presence.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden, a Democratic senator from Delaware, who was meeting Thursday evening with outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney, hadn't announced when he'll vacate his Senate seat. Nor had Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat who'll serve as Obama's White House chief of staff.

Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute said Thursday that all three men, especially Obama, were in awkward postures right now between their legislative and executive roles.

"You are president-elect but still a member of the legislative body, and if you come back it overshadows everything else," Ornstein said of the lame-duck session. "You run the risk if you vote that you're on the losing side. You'd just look diminished. There's nothing about it that works to your advantage."

Obama's Senate salary will end Sunday, his transition staff said. His health-care benefits will run through the end of the year, and he can buy extended coverage until his inauguration.

While Obama's Senate seat is certain to remain in Democratic hands, the choice still has ramifications nationally and at home in the bare-knuckled politics of Chicago, where a writer once said the city motto should be "Where's Mine?"

Nationally, Blagojevich will be under some pressure to name an African-American. Among the possibilities: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago and retiring Illinois Senate President Emil Jones.

Beyond the symbolism of a minority appointment, the party no doubt wants someone who could easily hold on to the seat in 2010.

Jackson has commissioned a poll to show Blagojevich that he'd have statewide support in 2010. Jones, who's 73, might not want to run for a full term.

Beyond the symbolism of a minority appointment, the party no doubt wants someone who could easily hold the seat in 2010.

Blagojevich wanted to appoint Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman, a close friend of Obama and a co-chairwoman of his transition team, according to a knowledgeable Illinois Democratic official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss party strategy.

However, Jarrett, who could be in line for a White House job or a cabinet appointment, said this week that she wasn't interested in the Senate seat. "Now the governor really doesn't know what to do," the official said.

A second choice could be Madigan, "to get her out" of the governor’s race, the source said.

The most unlikely choice could be Jackson, who's not a favorite of the governor. Said the Democratic official: "He’s not going go with Jesse Jackson under any circumstances."

Another possible pick, Tammy Duckworth, who's the state's director of veteran affairs, might face questions about 2010 given that she couldn't win an open congressional seat in the Chicago suburbs in 2006.

Politics at home is important as well. Facing a potentially difficult re-election himself, Blagojevich could eliminate competition by appointing a possible primary rival such as Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias or Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Other possible picks include Reps. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago and Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, either of whom would set off a struggle for their seat in the House of Representatives.

The official said that Blagojevich also might end up appointing a "caretaker" such as Jones, who'd fill out the term and then leave it to the voters to pick a new senator.

(Talev reported from Washington.)

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