SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The Illinois House voted overwhelmingly Friday to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich, setting up an unprecedented trial in the state Senate on whether he should be thrown out for abuse of power, including allegations that he tried to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat.
The governor responded with what has become trademark defiance since he arrested on federal charges a month ago. He accused the House of retaliating against him for trying to help the people of Illinois and said he's confident he'll be "properly exonerated" at a Senate trial.
"The causes of the impeachment are because I've done things to fight for families," said Blagojevich, who was joined by some beneficiaries of his health programs during a news conference in Chicago.
Blagojevich dismissed the impeachment as inevitable from a House that has resisted his efforts to help real people instead of "special interests and lobbyists."
He ended the news conference by quoting a poem from "Ulysses" by Lord Alfred Tennyson, ending with: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Blagojevich had been out jogging in his Chicago neighborhood when the House vote came down. Impeachment required just 60 votes. The final tally was 114-1.
Legislators accused the Democratic governor of betraying the public trust by letting ego and ambition drive his decisions.
"It's our duty to clean up the mess and stop the freak show that's become Illinois government," said Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock.
Blagojevich is the first governor impeached in Illinois' long and often sordid political history. He could become only the eighth U.S. governor to be impeached and removed from office; the last was Arizona's Evan Mecham in 1988.
Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on federal charges that include allegations he schemed to profit from his power to name President-elect Barack Obama's replacement in the Senate. The criminal complaint included an FBI agent's sworn affidavit describing wiretaps that caught Blagojevich allegedly talking about what he could get for the seat, how to pressure people into making campaign contributions and more.
The man the governor ultimately picked for the Senate job got some good news Friday. The Illinois Supreme Court said Roland Burris' appointment is valid under state law even though Secretary of State Jesse White had refused to sign it.
Burris, a former state attorney general who is not accused of wrongdoing, was turned away from the Senate this week, in part because his appointment lacked White's signature, but once-strident Senate opposition to accepting him has cooled.
Burris said Friday that he expects to be seated soon. Senate leaders didn't immediately comment Friday but previously said they wanted the issue over White's signature settled and for Burris to testify before a special state House committee considering Blagojevich's impeachment, which he did Thursday.
The committee on Thursday unanimously recommended impeachment based on the criminal charges but other allegations as well — that Blagojevich expanded a health care program without proper authority, that he circumvented hiring laws to give jobs to political allies, that he spent millions of dollars on foreign flu vaccine that he knew wasn't needed and couldn't be brought into the country.
Blagojevich has denied the criminal charges. He criticized the House impeachment process but didn't testify before the committee and hasn't offered an explanation for the federal charges.
"His silence in this grave matter is deafening," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago.
Patterson said he wasn't defending anyone, but that he read the impeachment committee's report and wasn't comfortable voting against the governor.
"I went by my own gut feeling, it's as simple as that," he said. "I read the report. If the government is going to indict him, let them go ahead and do that. That's their job and I'm doing my job."
The nearly unanimous vote reflects Blagojevich's rocky relationship with lawmakers, the political reality that supporting him now is likely to be unpopular and a genuine fury over his conduct.
Rep. Susana Mendoza, D-Chicago, noted the federal allegation that Blagojevich threatened to withhold state funds for children's health care unless he got a campaign donation from a hospital executive.
"Repugnant is too kind a word to describe that action," she said.
Three men who served as Illinois governor since the late 1960s went to prison after they left office, including Blagojevich's immediate predecessor, George Ryan, who is now behind bars. But Blagojevich is the first to be impeached.
The Illinois Constitution lays out no standard of proof to be met for removing an impeached governor, other than that senators must "do justice according to law."
The Illinois Senate is working to draft rules for a trial, which could begin as early as next week. The chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court will preside over the proceedings.