BLAGOJEVICH TO APPOINT BURRIS…. Well, this is a bit of a surprise.

I’ve learned that Gov. Blagojevich is poised to name former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to replace President elect Barack Obama in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon. The embattled Blagojevich, fighting impeachment charges in the Illinois House, just called a press conference for 2 p.m. Chicago time at the Thompson State of Illinois Center.

Burris was the first African American to win statewide office in Illinois when he was elected comptroller, serving from 1983 to 1991. He served as Illinois Attorney General from 1991 to 1995. Burris previously ran and lost bids for the U.S. senate and governor.

If tapped as planned, Burris would be the sole African American in the U.S. Senate.

Burris, who is 71, has sought higher office before, but lost in Democratic primaries in races for Chicago mayor, governor, and U.S. senator. It’s unclear whether he would be considered a “place-holder” senator, or whether Burris would plan to seek a full term of his own.

For that matter, there’s the not inconsequential issue of whether a Burris announcement will have any practical value at all. Three weeks ago, every member of the Senate Democratic caucus wrote Blagojevich a letter, urging him not to fill the Senate vacancy, and explaining that the chamber would exercise its constitutional authority and refuse to seat any official the governor appointed. (Indeed, two weeks ago, Blagojevich’s lawyer said the governor would not even try to fill the vacancy for this reason.)

Does that still stand? Is Burris a respected enough figure that senators may reconsider?

If these reports are accurate, and the governor does make a selection today, does Burris show up to stand with Blagojevich? How does he separate himself from the scandal, and make clear he’s not “Blagojevich’s man”? What does this do to the drive for a special election? Questions, questions.

What happens now is open to debate, but one thing’s for certain: Blagojevich is apparently throwing the chess board in the air. It was obvious from the criminal complaint that the governor has plenty of chutzpah, but I suspect few saw this one coming.

Update: The WSJ has a good piece with more on Burris’ background.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.