Under pressure from African-Americans in the House, Democratic leaders appear to be backing down from their vow to bar Roland Burris from the Senate under any circumstance.
When scandal-tarred Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich named Burris to Barack Obama’s Senate seat last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement in which he said that Burris “will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus.”
But as Burris made his way from Chicago to Washington on Monday, Reid took a softer line. “Of course, Roland Burris has not been certified by the state of Illinois,” he said. “When that takes place, we of course will review it. At this stage, we’re waiting to see what’ll happen in Illinois.”
Asked whether there was any chance that Burris will be seated, Reid said, “Listen, let’s just deal with reality, not with hypotheticals.” Asked about his earlier, unequivocal threat not to seat Burris, Reid said: “I’ve made my statement.”
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said last week that Blagojevich’s attempt to appoint Burris would “lead nowhere.” On Monday, he said that the Senate “still stands in judgment of what’s called the elections and returns of how a person has come to the chamber,” but he acknowledged that Burris has “met the basic qualifications” for the job — and that denying someone a seat “is very difficult to do.”
No one in the Democratic leadership suggested Monday that Burris would actually be seated when he arrives at the Capitol on Tuesday — or at any point thereafter — but the rhetoric was clearly softening as a potential showdown at the Capitol loomed, and Democrats were eager to get past the distraction.
Burris, arriving on a Southwest Airlines flight to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, acted as if his future wasn’t in doubt. He declared: “I am the United States senator from the state of Illinois.” And asked whether he’d anticipated the “mess” his appointment would cause, Burris said, “Mess? What mess?”
Burris is expected to arrive at the Capitol on Tuesday just before the swearing-in ceremony for new members. He said his message for Reid is simple: “I’m here to take my seat.”
Burris won’t be allowed to make his case until Wednesday, when he’s scheduled to meet with Durbin and Reid. Durbin said that Capitol Police won’t prevent Burris from entering the Capitol on Tuesday but that he “doesn’t have the legal right” to participate in Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony because Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson has deemed his credentials incomplete without a signature from the Illinois secretary of state. Burris has asked the Illinois Supreme Court to compel the secretary of state to sign his appointment papers.
Durbin said he’d let Burris watch the ceremony from his office next to the Senate chamber but not from the Senate floor, a privilege granted to sitting senators, senators-elect, aides and invited guests.
Senate Democrats face pressure to seat Burris from two directions.
With Obama gone, Burris would be the only African-American in the Senate, and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pushing for him to be seated.
“He has been legally appointed by the governor of the state of Illinois,” said Rep. Danny Davis, a black Illinois Democrat to whom Blagojevich offered the seat before giving it to Burris. “Now that he has been appointed, I would urge the Senate to confirm him.”
Another CBC member, Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), has been lobbying on behalf of Burris, pressuring Reid and his own state’s Democratic senators, Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, to seat him.
“I think race comes into it becase the Senate lacks diversity,” Payne said. “It doesn’t reflect America.”
Durbin said race wasn’t an issue.
“Let’s be very clear about this,” he said. “For many of us involved in this very complicated and frustrating issue — many of us actively supported Barack Obama for president of the United States. And raising some question of whether or not we have prejudice involved in this — there is no prejudice involved whatsoever.”
CBC member Gregory Meeks (D-Fla.) said Burris would be “a good person to serve the people of Illinois.”
“When I put a legal hat on and I think of the process that has taken place, he should be seated,” said Meeks. “I don’t see any legal basis on which to deny him.”
The same argument was made Monday by Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the Senate Republican whip.
“If a candidate presents himself with the appropriate credentials, what, then, would be the basis of the Senate to deny his being seated?” Kyl asked. “I don’t know.”
Republicans — relishing the thought of sticking Democrats with the Blagojevich taint — suggest that it would be hypocritical if Democrats were to welcome Al Franken, whose victory in Minnesota remains subject to legal challenges from Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, while denying a seat to Burris.
In contrast to his wait-and-see approach with Burris, Reid said Monday that “Norm Coleman will never, ever serve [again] in the Senate.”
In talking points obtained by Politico, Democrats argue that there’s no comparison between the Burris situation and the Franken-Coleman fight, because “there have been no allegations of fraud or impropriety in the Minnesota recount.”
The Democrats’ preferred solution to the Burris problem is for the Illinois Legislature to impeach Blagojevich, paving the way for Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn to take his place and appoint someone other than Burris to Obama’s vacant seat. But even that could create a legal headache, legal observers say, since the Burris appointment would still be pending.
“Even if Blagojevich is impeached, that doesn’t undo all the actions he has taken as governor,” said Andrew Raucci, a former chief justice for the Illinois Court of Claims and now a Chicago-based attorney.
Democrats say that if Burris hasn’t been seated by the time Quinn takes over, he could name someone else to the seat by rescinding Burris’ certification papers.
Burris was having none of it. At a news conference at Chicago’s Midway Airport, the former Illinois attorney general testily said to reporters, “Why don’t you all understand that what has been done here is legal? I am the junior senator from Illinois, and I wish my colleagues in the press would recognize that. All the drama — I guess it keeps you all in a job.”
Daniel Libit contributed to this story.