Democrats angry over the botched handling of the Roland Burris imbroglio are putting the blame on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin and President-elect Barack Obama — even as new legal developments in Illinois throw the issue back to the Senate again.
Democratic sources say that Reid and Durbin underestimated the storm that would be caused by their attempt to deny a seat to a 71-year-old African-American.
"Reid operates in this tight, little circle with Durbin and [Sen. Charles] Schumer and [Sen. Patty] Murray," complained one veteran Democratic senator, granted anonymity to speak candidly. "He needs to talk to more people, and maybe these kinds of situations won't occur again."
Other Democratic insiders put some of the blame on Obama, complaining that he kept his distance from the Burris controversy then jumped in at the end to claim the mantle of peacemaker — much as he did in the flap over Sen. Joe Lieberman's support of Republican John McCain's presidential bid.
"A lot of people were pissed" with how the Burris situation was handled, said a Democratic source involved in the discussions.
Aides to Democratic leaders defend their efforts to diffuse a very difficult situation, saying it changed beyond anyone's expectations and that they didn't want to involve too many people because it was such a toxic issue. A spokesperson for Obama didn't respond to inquiries about the president-elect's role.
Action in the saga shifted Friday to Illinois, where the state legislature impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the state Supreme Court ruled that Secretary of State Jesse White need not sign his appointment papers for Burris.
That leaves Burris and the Democrats back where they started at the beginning of the week — with Burris claiming he's entitled to take Obama's vacant Senate seat, and Democrats grappling with whether his appointment is valid without the signature he hasn't been able to get.
"We just need to get this over with," said a Democrat close to leadership.
Aides, advisers and senators recounted the discussions that led to the current state of play on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the issue.
Blagojevich's Dec. 9 arrest on charges of trying to sell Obama's seat sent Senate Democrats into a panic. Reid, Durbin and the Obama transition team knew they had to keep their distance from the scandalized governor, but they wanted to respond forcefully to the allegations against him, leaving no room for Republicans to punish the incoming president politically.
They also wanted to prevent Blagojevich from naming Obama's replacement. But they misread the governor's willingness to say a "big F-you" to the Senate, in the words of one top aide, just as they later underestimated Burris' ego and willingness to engage in open political warfare to get his seat.
The leaders were far from united in their initial response to Blagojevich's arrest. Durbin immediately made a forceful appeal for a special election that would strip the governor of his appointment powers, but neither he nor Obama called for Blagojevich to resign. Reid, fearing that Democrats could lose the seat if a special election were held, did not support Durbin's call.
As the public outcry over Blagojevich's alleged misconduct grew, Reid and Durbin decided they should hash out a single position for the entire Democratic Caucus — calling on the governor to resign and warning that the Senate would be prepared to use its constitutional authority to reject anyone he appointed.
Reid's office drafted one version of such a letter outlining that stance, and several more followed. There was an internal debate over how strongly to word the letter — or whether to send one at all.
But by Dec. 10, Reid and Durbin had gotten all 50 Senate Democrats to sign off. Their letter did not call for a special election, creating a percepion that Democrats were backing away from their desire to strip Blagojevich of his appointment powers out of fear that GOP might actually pick up Obama's seat if it went to a vote.
In an interview, Durbin acknowledged the mixed messages — to a degree.
"[Messages] were mixed only that we wanted to make it clear that this was not going to be ordinary business for Blagojevich," Durbin said.
After sending their letter, Senate Democrats thought the matter would then fizzle away. The state legislature was moving ahead with impeachment proceedings, and soon enough, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn would ascend to the governor's office and could appoint an untainted Democrat to serve out Obama's Senate term.
But on Dec. 30, Blagojevich announced that he would use his powers to appoint Burris — a move that caught Democrats completely flatfooted. The timing of Blagojevich's decision, just before New Year's Eve, made it enormously difficult to coordinate a response, with senators and senior staff scattered across the country for the holidays.
Reid was at home in Searchlight, Nev., when the news broke. He convened a conference call with his advisers, Durbin and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is the incoming chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Neither Murray nor New York Sen. Chuck Schumer — a senior member of the Democratic leadership and a close Reid adviser — took part in that call.
Reid and Durbin decided they needed to issue a statement from the leadership praising Burris' credentials, but — consistent with their Dec. 10 letter — warning that no Blagojevich pick would be seated.
Obama, vacationing in Hawaii and continuing his preparations on the transition, was not consulted on their statement.
"If Obama had gotten involved earlier, "I don't think the situation would have unfolded this way," one Democrat said.
By the next day, Senate officials had determined that the secretary of the Senate could block Burris from taking his seat if his appointment papers weren't signed by the Illinois secretary of state.
Democrats put out the word that Burris couldn't be seated without the signature and wouldn't be allowed on the Senate floor when other new senators were sworn in. Instead, they announced that Burris would get a meeting with Reid and Durbin on Wednesday, Jan. 7.
The leaders assumed the issue would lie dormant until then.
But Burris refused to play along. He made plans to force his way into the Capitol on the day of the swearing-in ceremony, if necessary. And he skillfully used a series of high-profile media events, which included the persistent use of the "race card" by his allies, including Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who went so far as to compare Reid and other Democratic leaders to Bull Connor and George Wallace.
Burris also had assistance from Blagojevich allies, including operative Eddie Reed, who helped organize a raucous Sunday church service where black leaders and ministers rallied for Burris ahead of his trip to Washington the next day.
"We are hoping and praying that they will not be able to deny what the Lord has ordained," Burris said at the service.
Once Burris and his allies had succeeded in making race — rather than Blagojevich's problems — the focus of the dispute, the political calculus for Reid and Durbin shifted dramatically. Making matters worse, the Chicago Sun Times on Jan. 3 broke a story — clearly leaked by Blagojevich's camp — saying that Reid had previously floated names of potential Obama replacements to Blagojevich and had told him not to appoint several potential black politicians.
Reid vehemently denied the story, but the damage had been done. The next day on "Meet the Press," the majority leader signaled for the first time that he was open to negotiate a compromise.
"I'm an old trial lawyer," Reid told NBC's David Gregory. "There's always room to negotiate."
Faced with a media firestorm, Senate Democrats were now moving toward a solution to defuse the situation. Reid had a "general consultation" with Rahm Emanuel, Obama's White House chief of staff, marking the first time the Obama team had weighed in on the matter directly, according to leadership aides.
On Monday, Obama met with Reid to talk about the stimulus package. During that discussion, Obama reportedly told Reid that Burris should be seated. Obama's people subsequently leaked the details of the conversation in order to distance their boss from efforts to deny Burris the seat, a move that infuriated some Senate Democratic staffers.
But Burris wasn't backing off, and Blagojevich was still ramping up the pressure on Senate Democrats. Clayton Harris, the governor's top aide, dropped off the credentials at Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson's office on Jan. 5, the day before Burris was scheduled to arrive in Washington. As expected, Erickson rejected them because they lacked White's signature.
Harris then set up an office with television cameras for Burris at the Hall of States, near the Capitol, but Burris decided against using it.
On Tuesday, the battle shifted directly to Capitol Hill, where — as television cameras took it all in - Burris was turned away from the Senate chamber and forced to hold a press conference outside in the rain.
Democrats had urged Burris not to carry on with the theatrics, and Durbin tried to defuse the situation by inviting Burris to a reception in his office that evening for new senators. Burris rejected his entreaties.
By that point, Democrats were acknowledging privately that they were in a fight they couldn't win. Reid, Durbin and other top Democrats had been suggesting for days that the Rules and Administration Committee would investigate the issue, a face-saving move that would delay seating Burris until Blagojevich could be removed from office and his successor could appoint someone else
But Schumer, who is scheduled to take over the rules panel this year, wanted no part of Burris, and he pushed back at efforts to shove the matter onto his plate.
On Wednesday, Reid and Burris met with Burris for 45 minutes. Burris slipped out the back when it was over, leaving Reid and Durbin to explain a three-step plan that was supposed to lead quickly to the seating of the new senator.
Reporters demanded to know why Reid and Durbin had caved in; Burris held his own press conference to celebrate what looked like a triumph.