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Ill. panel to grill Burris on Senate appointment

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[January 08, 2009]  SPRINGFIELD (AP) -- Illinois Republicans are promising tough questions Thursday for Senate-appointee Roland Burris on why he accepted a position offered by disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich and whether he promised the governor anything in return.

Burris on Wednesday returned from an encouraging two-day visit to Washington, D.C., yet without being able to take the oath of office with the newest members of the 111th Congress. He next faces an impatient impeachment committee.

"I would like to specifically ask, under oath, if there was any quid pro quo for the appointment," said Rep. Mike Bost, a Republican member of the Illinois House committee considering Blagojevich's impeachment.

Lawmakers also plan to ask Burris about contributions to the governor's campaign, how Blagojevich's wife got a job with a group affiliated with Burris' business partner and why the governor's criminal lawyer approached Burris about the Senate instead of a staff member.

The panel is awaiting a federal court ruling Thursday on whether it will get to hear some of the secretly recorded conversations federal prosecutors made of Blagojevich allegedly scheming to trade government action for campaign contributions.

Some committee members hope to complete their work and schedule a House vote on an impeachment recommendation before the week's out. That would send the matter to the state Senate for a trial.

In Washington, D.C., U.S. Senate leaders have said they would be open to recognizing Burris' appointment after he deals with lingering legal obstacles.

They're also waiting for a decision from the Illinois Supreme Court on whether Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White must sign off on Blagojevich's appointment of Burris. Senate rules appear to bar seating anyone whose appointment isn't properly signed by state officials.

When Burris showed up at the Capitol to be sworn in Tuesday, he was turned away in the rain. But on Wednesday, he was invited in to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois. Photographers snapped pictures of the three, Burris in the middle, smiling and chatting.

Later, Reid and Durbin reported that they thought highly of Burris and they were merely waiting for procedural matters to be resolved before he could be seated.

"We don't have a problem with him as an individual," Reid said.

Burris, 71, said he should be able to join the Senate "very shortly."

Burris denies any improper conduct to land his appointment, but Senate leaders hoped that Burris would be asked under oath Thursday whether he promised Blagojevich anything in exchange -- sort of political insurance in case other news came out after his seating in the Senate.

If Burris offers that insurance and the Illinois Supreme Court requires the secretary of state to sign his appointment, then the Senate will almost certainly hold a vote on whether to seat Burris, Reid said.

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The impeachment committee's Democratic chairwoman, state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, played down the importance of Burris' appearance, saying people must "have a screw loose" to think Blagojevich offered improper deals after being arrested.

But Republican Rep. Jim Durkin said the appointment raises serious questions. He called the role of the governor's criminal attorney, Samuel Adam Jr., "another level of bizarre."

"Mr. Burris owes an explanation to the millions of people in the state," Durkin said.

Blagojevich's appointment of Burris on Dec. 30 created a furor. It came just three weeks after he was accused by federal prosecutors of scheming to profit from his power to name President-elect Barack Obama's replacement in the Senate.

Obama said Wednesday that the decision on whether to allow Burris to join the Senate is a decision for Senate leaders. The president-elect said he knew Burris, liked him and would be happy to work with him if he is seated.

The Congressional Black Caucus voted unanimously Wednesday to support seating Burris, who would be the Senate's only black member.

"This is a situation where we have a senator who has now missed out on his first day," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a caucus member. "It's only fair that he be sworn in immediately. This is a no-brainer."

Meanwhile, Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, sued the Senate on Wednesday, saying the refusal to seat Burris is unconstitutional.

[Associated Press; By CHRISTOPHER WILLS]

Associated Press writers Ann Sanner, Laurie Kellman and Ben Evans contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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