Democrats Treading Delicately on Burris

Posted February 23, 2009 at 6:39pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) does not appear inclined to give embattled Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) the hook, preferring to let the Senate Ethics Committee and Illinois-based investigations play out before deciding to press for the appointed lawmaker’s censure or expulsion.

“There is already a process in place that includes investigations by Illinois state officials and the Senate Ethics Committee,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. “Let’s let the appropriate process play out and let all the facts come to light. But, in the meantime, he is still a Member of the Senate.”

Burris is due back on Capitol Hill today and plans to attend President Barack Obama’s scheduled evening address before a joint session of Congress. He is expected to spend the rest of the week participating in committee hearings and casting floor votes.

Burris’ office cautioned that the Senator would have no comment on this latest scandal surrounding his appointment to the Senate pending the outcome of probes being conducted by Ethics Committee and an Illinois county attorney. The junior Illinois Senator is fighting allegations that he lied to a state legislative panel about his contact with disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who appointed him to fill the seat vacated when Obama assumed the presidency.

Burris’ office said that no meetings with Senate Democratic leaders had yet been scheduled. However, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is hoping to sit down with his home-state colleague to discuss the matter. “Sen. Durbin would like to meet with Sen. Burris face to face before commenting any further on this story,” Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said, adding that Durbin hopes the meeting between the two occurs “as soon as possible.”

Blagojevich, who has since been impeached and removed from office by the Illinois Legislature, tapped Burris to succeed Obama a few weeks after being arrested for allegedly trying to sell the seat to the highest bidder.

Prior to being installed as a Senator but after he had secured Blagojevich’s appointment, Burris testified before a state legislative panel that there was nothing untoward or illegal about his contact with Blagojevich. But earlier this month, Burris volunteered that Blagojevich had in fact enlisted him to raise campaign funds for the former Illinois chief executive.

Burris conceded that he tried to raise money for Blagojevich but was unsuccessful. Burris’ office on Monday declined to comment on the allegations, referring reporters instead to a statement that the Senator released last week while in Chicago for the Presidents Day recess.

“As I have said before, I ask our leaders to stop the rush to judgment — I have been open and honest in my statements. There is a legal process moving forward with the Sangamon County State’s Attorney, and the matter is before the Senate Ethics Committee. Those bodies will examine the facts and report out their conclusions. I will cooperate with them fully,” Burris said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Ethics Committee has opened a preliminary inquiry into the matter, with the Sangamon County attorney also investigating. Burris’ ability to speak on his own behalf has been complicated by his being questioned by federal law enforcement officials as a part of the investigation into Blagojevich, which is still ongoing, according to sources familiar with the Senator’s situation.

Those sources said Burris and those in his camp remain steadfast in their belief that the Senator did nothing wrong. They admit to a massive public relations blunder in handling the latest episode related to his appointment but insist that Burris wasn’t hiding anything. Rather, he informed state officials of his fundraising relationship with Blagojevich after his own internal review of events brought the facts to his attention.

Illinois Democratic sources say it’s unlikely that Burris will resign unless his legal bills become too cumbersome. If the Springfield prosecutor charges Burris with perjury for his testimony to the state legislature, the former Democratic Illinois attorney general could be caught under a mountain of legal bills — and it’s unlikely that he would be in a position to fundraise.

“I think the only way he resigns is if he has legal bills that mount up and he has no ability to pay for it,” one Illinois Democratic operative said. “Other than that, I don’t think there’s anybody who can put pressure on him to go away.”

The Burris camp claims that the Republicans and Democrats who have called on him to resign have a political ax to grind — primarily because of the 2010 Senate election, which is likely to be a political free-for-all. In fact, many of the Democrats who have called on Burris to step down, including Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, are widely expected to consider running for the seat regardless of what happens with Burris.

Similarly, this latest dust-up with Burris, combined with the Blagojevich imbroglio, has engendered hope among the Republicans of picking up this otherwise solidly Democratic Senate seat. For that reason, Republicans in the Senate are expected to say very little about the Burris’ situation, silently preferring that he remain in the Senate through the end of 2010, when the seat is up for election.

“It’s the Democrats’ mess and they’re doing quite well on their own bungling the situation and drawing lots of attention to some serious ethical lapses within their party,” a senior Republican Senate aide said.

If Burris does resign or is ejected from the Senate, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) announced last week that he would appoint a temporary replacement and that a special election would follow.

In that case, several local officials and House Members are expected to toss their hats into the ring. Giannoulias is expected to announce an exploratory committee this week, according to a local Chicago report. His consultant Eric Adelstein said no final decisions have been made but indicated that the treasurer is strongly leaning toward making a run.

But Giannoulias would not be the only Democrat in the hunt, especially if there is a special election and several House Members do not have to give up their seats to run. Republicans, meanwhile, see the tainted Senate seat as an opening for a pickup and look to Illinois Republican Reps. Mark Kirk or Peter Roskam to jump in.

Sources close to Kirk say he would almost certainly run in a special election but would look more carefully about making the race in 2010. Despite recent events, Illinois is still a Democratic state and any Republican would face challenges running statewide.

“It depends on what the national mood is at that time,” said a national political consultant who has worked for several Illinois Democrats. “I think that [Kirk] could possibly beat [Schakowsky], but not [Giannoulias].”

Emily Pierce and Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.