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Senate Republicans could stand to gain at the outset of the 111th Congress and President-elect Barack Obama’s White House tenure following Tuesday’s arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) on federal corruption charges. If Blagojevich declines to resign and allow Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) to take over, the Senate Democratic Conference — now sitting at 58 or 59 seats, depending on the ongoing Minnesota Senate recount — would be down one seat just as crucial legislation for the new president is being crafted and voted on. In light of the ethical cloud that would mar any Obama successor appointed by Blagojevich, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is asking the state Legislature to change the law so that the new Senator could be determined via special election. “I think the Illinois General Assembly should enact a law as quickly as possible calling for a special election to fill the Senate vacancy of Barack Obama,” Durbin told reporters Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after Blagojevich was led away from his home in handcuffs. “No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement.” Durbin said he was in contact with legislative leaders in Springfield regarding his proposal. And in fact, by Tuesday afternoon, Democratic leaders in the Illinois statehouse were preparing to call the Legislature back into a special session to consider such a bill, with veto-proof passage expected. Meanwhile, Republicans pounced. Incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said in a statement that Blagojevich’s actions taint all Democrats who are interested in ensuring that Obama’s vacated seat remains in Democratic hands, with one senior Republican Senate aide suggesting that Republicans do not intend to let this issue lie dormant. This GOP aide indicated that the political value of the Blagojevich scandal goes beyond the Democratic majority temporarily or permanently losing a seat in the 111th. “Virtually every top-tier Democrat mentioned as a potential candidate for the seat is now under a cloud of suspicion, which will exacerbate their problems for the future,” this aide said. Republican campaign operatives were speculating that any special election called to replace Obama could provide the GOP an opening to flip a Senate seat that is otherwise reliably Democratic, given the ethical taint that now surrounds this seat and the fact that voter turnout in specials is notoriously unpredictable. Because a sitting elected politician would not have to give up his or her seat to run, one GOP strategist speculated that a formidable Republican, such as Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.), could possibly be recruited to run. Sources close to Cornyn said the Texan is inclined to put up a fight to flip this seat, given the situation at hand. “If a special election is held, this scandal will still be fresh in voters’ minds,” said one Republican source close to Cornyn. “We will obviously be keeping a very close eye on how things unfold in the days ahead.” This source acknowledged that turning over this Senate seat would not be easy, if it is possible at all. But this individual referenced the Republican upset win this past Saturday in scandal-tarred Rep. William Jefferson’s (D) heavily Democratic New Orleans-area 2nd district as an example of the political opportunity that might exist in Illinois. Democrats, however, downplayed the political significance of the Blagojevich scandal beyond the Illinois border. Regan Lachapelle, a spokesman for Reid, diminished the immediate elongated absence of Obama’s successor and the temporary loss of what likely would have been a reliable Democratic vote on contentious issues. Senate Democrats are looking to use the first 100 days of Obama’s administration to pass largely noncontroversial measures, in addition to working with their Republican colleagues on an economic recovery bill in January. “It is still to early to tell,” Lachapelle said when asked how the Democratic agenda might be affected when the new Senate convenes in January. In a prepared statement released late Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed Durbin, calling for a new method to decide Obama’s replacement — one that does not involve Blagojevich. “It is clear that anyone Gov. Blagojevich appoints to the Senate will fairly or unfairly be tainted by questions of impropriety. A different process to select a new Senator must be put in place,” Reid said. Incoming Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) was not available for comment Tuesday. Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the outgoing DSCC chairman, declined to comment on the matter during a brief interview just off of the Senate floor.

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