Burris Continues to Confound Senate Leaders

Posted February 20, 2009 at 6:56am

When Senate Democratic leaders insisted last month on scrutinizing then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s pick to replace President Barack Obama in the chamber, they were pilloried for trying to deny an African-American a seat in the Senate. But now that Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) has revealed that he may have misled a state legislative impeachment panel and attempted to raise campaign cash for a governor who was later removed from office for allegedly attempting to sell Obama’s seat to the highest bidder, some Senate Democrats are saying, “I told you so.” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “was right about saying that anybody from Blagojevich was going to be trouble,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. However, because the fight over Burris’ appointment touched on racial politics, Democrats privately say they do not yet envision a scenario where he would be expelled from the Senate, despite the comment by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Wednesday that Burris’ seat was in jeopardy. Still, Reid, along with Durbin, tried mightily to force an extended Senate review of Burris’ appointment, considering that federal agents had arrested Blagojevich on Dec. 9 in an attempt to prevent him from auctioning off the seat in exchange for political favors and campaign cash. But a variety of factors – from allegations of racism and Obama’s intervention to a lack of political will among rank-and-file Democrats – essentially forced Reid and Durbin to relent in mid-January and swear in Burris. “There was really no good way to handle it,” another knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide said. “They couldn’t just accept a Blagojevich appointment, but they didn’t have as much power to stop it as they originally let on.” Originally, Reid and Durbin refused to seat anyone Blagojevich appointed. They stated as much the day after Blagojevich was arrested and again the day he named Burris to the seat. But when the governor used the appointment press conference to provide another black politician – Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) — with a platform to make the issue more about the Senate’s lack of racial diversity, the dynamics changed. Rush used racially charged language in daring Senate leaders to deny Burris the seat: “I will ask you not to hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer.” Still, Reid and Durbin sought to place conditions on Burris, requiring him to not only testify before the Illinois General Assembly panel that was pursuing Blagojevich’s impeachment, but also to submit the proper state certification of his appointment. Senate rules require the signature of the governor and the secretary of state, but Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White (D) initially refused to consent to the appointment. Under repeated questioning from state lawmakers, Burris insisted he had only spoken to one Blagojevich associate before he was appointed and that he had not participated in any way in the “pay-to-play” scheme. “People came away from that hearing feeling that he met the requirements that had been put forward,” another Senate Democratic aide said. In fact, Reid and Durbin scrapped plans to send the appointment to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee for review, after White certified the appointment and Burris testified. He was sworn in on Jan. 15. Then, over the past two weeks, Burris filed a new affidavit with the state Legislature, revealing that he did not admit he had spoken to several Blagojevich associates in the runup to his appointment. While trying to explain that his testimony did not contain inconsistencies, Burris acknowledged that he attempted to raise campaign cash for the governor while lobbying for the Senate seat. A state attorney in Illinois is already looking into whether to charge Burris with perjury, and the Senate Ethics Committee has opened a preliminary inquiry. Democrats acknowledge that if Burris had revealed the extent of his contacts with Blagojevich associates, he would not have been seated as quickly as he was, if at all. Meanwhile, those who supported his appointment, despite the taint of Blagojevich, have so far declined to rally around Burris. Rush in particular has been conspicuously quiet on the subject. Asked on Tuesday about the scandal, Rush demurred and said he needed to hear Burris’ side of the story. Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said through a spokesman, “This is a matter for the appropriate authorities in the United States Senate and the state of Illinois to handle. There is a process in place for just these types of instances, and we should let that process play out.” Lee’s spokesman said the Congresswoman was not speaking in her capacity as CBC chairwoman, but simply for herself. However, those statements come in stark contrast to the CBC’s unanimous decision on Jan. 7 to ask Senate leaders to seat Burris as soon as possible. Part of that push was fueled by a Chicago Sun-Times report – which Reid has vehemently denied – that described Reid as nixing three black politicians and favoring two white ones in conversations with Blagojevich about the appointment. Clearly feeling burned by the implication that they might be racists, Reid and Durbin took pains to appear more receptive to Burris’ appointment. After meeting with Burris in his office on Jan. 7, Reid was careful to note that, “Roland Burris, one of the first things he said to us – ‘Hey, this is nothing that’s racial; I understand that.’ So a lot of people tried to make this a racial issues, but Roland Burris has not and will not.” Meanwhile, Reid and Durbin were getting blowback from both Obama and Members of the Senate Democratic Conference. After standing behind Reid’s Dec. 30 statement that a Blagojevich appointee should not be seated, Obama reportedly reversed course and told Reid that if Burris had legal standing he should be seated. That sentiment was shared by some Democratic Senators as well. Notably, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — the outgoing Rules chairman — said not seating Burris could affect the validity of all governors’ appointees.