Burris Arrives, Is Turned Away

Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:49pm

It could be called the elephant in the room in the Senate — or perhaps more appropriately, the zoo outside the Capitol.

Just hours before the Senate convened to swear in new and returning Members on Tuesday, media swarmed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris (D), disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) choice to take President-elect Barack Obama’s now-vacant Senate seat.

But Obama’s empty chair wasn’t the only glaring hole on the Senate seating chart Tuesday afternoon. In Minnesota, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) instructed his legal team to contest the results of the recently completed recount that showed the Republican trailing comedian Al Franken (D) by 225 votes.

The two vacancies put Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a tough spot Tuesday after he announced earlier he would not seat either would-be Democratic Senator.

Burris is scheduled to plead his case today — that he is the lawful successor to Obama — to Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

The meeting was offered to Burris as a courtesy, and the former Illinois attorney general is not expected to change the minds of the Senate Democratic leaders — at least not today. Reid on Tuesday declined to rule out seating Burris eventually, although he also made clear he has the power to keep the Illinois Democrat out of the Senate if he so chooses by bottling his case up in the Rules and Administration Committee.

“We’re not going to do any hypothetical stuff here. … Where we are in the future, we’ll have to take a look at that,” Reid told Roll Call in an interview. “I don’t need anyone’s permission to refer Franken and Burris to the Rules Committee.”

Some critics have suggested that Reid is intent on blocking Burris’ appointment because he is afraid the former state attorney general cannot win a statewide election in 2010, when whomever is appointed would presumably run for a full term. That’s why some insiders suggest Reid may tell Burris he can enter the Senate, but only if he agrees not to run next year.

But Kurt Schmoke, one of Burris’ attorneys, said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” Tuesday that Democratic leaders have an obligation to seat Burris and deal with any political fallout later.

“First you’ve got to seat this man, then you can talk politics,” Schmoke said.

Burris has been referring to himself as Illinois’ junior Senator since the embattled Blagojevich appointed him to fill Obama’s seat, but Senate Democratic leaders continue to maintain that he has not been properly certified, and therefore cannot be installed.

“Members of the media: My name is Roland Burris, the junior Senator from the state of Illinois,” Burris said to a crowd of reporters outside the Capitol on Tuesday morning.

Burris entered the Capitol on Tuesday with the intent to be sworn in with the rest of the 111th Congress. But he was turned away from the Senate floor on the grounds that Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s (D) failure to certify him as Blagojevich’s appointee means he has not met the legal threshold to assume office.

“I presented my credentials to the Secretary of the Senate and was advised that my credentials were not in order and I would not be accepted, I would not be seated, and I was not permitted on the floor, and therefore I am not seeking to have any kind of confrontation,” Burris said. “I will now consult with my attorneys, and we will determine what our next step is going to be.”

Previously, Reid and Durbin said they would not seat any Blagojevich appointee, as the governor was arrested last month for allegedly attempting to sell his appointment of an Obama successor. But the leaders have since backed away from that position and are now hanging their argument on White’s refusal to certify the appointment.

Burris’ lawyers said in a press conference afterward that the Senate had no legal right to prevent their client from being sworn in.

“We were not allowed to proceed to the floor for the purposes of taking oath, all of which we think was improperly done and it is against the law of this land,” attorney Timothy Wright said, adding that his client is considering filing suit in federal district court.

According to a statement released by Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson, Burris’ certificate of appointment did not comply with Senate Rule II “in that it lacked both the signature of the Illinois Secretary of State, Jesse White, and the Seal of the State of Illinois.”

Burris has already taken action against this move in state court, and Reid seemed to suggest that if a court rules that Burris’ appointment is legal and complete, he might be welcomed into the Senate.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is giving up her post as Rules Committee chairman to take over the Intelligence Committee gavel, reportedly called on leaders in her party to seat Burris.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said in a phone interview that he thought Burris should be seated in the Senate.

“As a matter of fact, not only do I support it, but I also think that the law supports it,” Davis said. “He was duly appointed by a governor with the legal authority to appoint him.”

Blagojevich offered Davis the appointment through an emissary on Christmas Eve, but the Chicagoland Democrat declined the offer for a couple reasons, including the controversy surround Blagojevich and the seat.

Meanwhile, Illinois state lawmakers are continuing with impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich in the state Capitol this week. So far, legislation to change state law to replace a vacant Senate seat from gubernatorial appointment to a special election has been put on hold in Springfield.

Republicans have been pushing for a special election to fill the seat.

“None of this had to happen,” Illinois Republican Party spokesman Lance Trover said. “The Blagojevich Democrats who control Springfield could have stripped him of his powers weeks ago, and they didn’t do it. And now we’re in a national state of embarrassment for Illinois because of their failure to act.”

But while progress could potentially be made for the vacant Illinois Senate seat today, it could be weeks or months until the recount in Minnesota is resolved.

In St. Paul, Coleman said he had instructed his legal team to file an election contest to the canvassing board’s results, which were certified Monday.

“Until these issues are settled, any attempt to seat someone who is not properly certified ignores the law, violates Senate precedent and usurps the will of the people of Minnesota,” Coleman said, according to a statement from his campaign.

Coleman recount attorney Tony Trimble told reporters Tuesday evening that the campaign plans to file its contest based on inconsistencies in the recount, all of which benefited Franken.

Once the contest is filed, a three-judge panel will be assembled in the next couple days and, Trimble said, the matter will go to trial within 20 days.

Franken recount attorney Marc Elias called the legal contest an “uphill battle” in a conference call Tuesday evening. Faced with a losing deficit after the recount, Elias accused the Coleman campaign of “mining for ballots somewhere” in order to win.

“I guess when you’re behind by 225 votes, desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said.