Burris Fallout Vexes Durbin

Posted February 24, 2009 at 6:33pm

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) seemed to throw up his hands Tuesday at the media circus and political fallout surrounding his embattled and stubborn home-state colleague, Sen. Roland Burris (D).

Despite Durbin’s private advice Tuesday that Burris should step down, along with public demands of resignation from the Illinois governor and Democratic House Members, Burris appears determined to try to weather the storm over how he secured his Senate appointment. Burris was named to replace President Barack Obama by a governor who has been removed from office and charged with trying to sell the seat for political favors.

“I’ve made my recommendation to Sen. Burris, and he’s told me clearly that he will not resign,” Durbin said at a news conference following a meeting between the two Senators. “There are a lot of people, including a lot of editorial writers, who think that I have a very persuasive way about me with Mr. Burris, and I will just tell you that that is not the case. He contacted me before he was appointed … and I told him don’t do it. He did it anyway. So my advice, obviously, doesn’t move him.”

In his attempt to convince Burris to step down, Durbin put the personal and political difficulties Burris faces in stark terms, including potentially lengthy and expensive investigations by both the Senate Ethics Committee and a state attorney seeking to determine whether Burris perjured himself before an Illinois state legislative panel. Durbin said Burris told him his legal bills are already hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Because of the legal jeopardy involved, Burris is limited in mounting his own public defense to the furor that erupted after he filed a Feb. 4 affidavit with the Illinois General Assembly acknowledging that he had five contacts with associates of disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) before accepting the appointment. A month earlier, he told the legislative panel that he had only spoken to one associate. Burris also revealed last week that he attempted — but failed — to raise campaign cash for Blagojevich while seeking the Senate seat.

Burris has insisted he did nothing improper, and he appeared in good spirits upon exiting Durbin’s office, even though he declined to comment, citing the advice of his attorneys.

“We had a good discussion … a great discussion,” Burris said.

When pressed by reporters on whether he might resign or run for his seat outright next year, Burris said he was “under orders to — not to speak about this,” before clarifying that those orders were self-imposed. “My own orders,” he said. “My attorneys suggested I don’t discuss this.”

With Burris continuing to resist calls to step down, several Democratic aides said they envision a scenario, much like that of former Idaho GOP Sen. Larry Craig, who was urged to resign by high-ranking members of his party after being arrested in an airport bathroom sex sting in 2007. Craig, however, resisted calls to step down, and the media furor eventually died. However, Craig helped defuse the situation by announcing he would not run for re-election in 2008, which Burris has not done.

That may be why Durbin’s statement sought to walk a fine line between demanding that Burris step down — as Gov. Pat Quinn (D), other statewide officeholders and Congressional lawmakers have done — and providing Burris with advice about the difficulties he faces if he stays. After all, if Burris continued to refuse to entertain resignation, a Durbin demand that Burris step down could backfire, making Durbin look politically weak and permanently damaging a home-state relationship that he may have to keep for at least the next two years.

Still, Durbin said he told Burris he was “disappointed that he didn’t make a clear and accurate description” of his contacts with Blagojevich aides and associates. Durbin emphasized that Burris should have volunteered the information without being asked, considering both Durbin and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made Burris’ testimony before the Illinois state panel a condition of their willingness to seat him.

Durbin also noted that a Burris primary or general election candidacy would be “extremely difficult” to pull off given the circumstances. Durbin said he told Burris that he would not be able to support him if he ran for a full term in 2010.

But Burris loyalists said they didn’t expect Durbin to be their savior.

“We don’t expect any encouragement from Sen. Durbin,” said one source familiar with the Burris camp’s thinking. “Sen. Durbin has his own motivations.”

This source pointed out that Durbin, in particular, was traveling in Greece and Turkey last week with Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) — who has been often mentioned as a possible 2010 Senate candidate. Plus, Durbin’s comments about a potential Giannoulias bid in 2010 have led many political insiders to assume that the 32-year-old treasurer would have the senior Senator’s backing.

Burris associates said they have been frustrated by the media frenzy and willingness of Illinois politicians with ulterior motives to jump into the fray. The Burris camp source said Republicans and Democrats alike who have called on Burris to resign have political axes to grind — primarily because of the 2010 Senate election, which could be a free-for-all in both parties. In fact, many of the Democrats who have called on Burris to step down — including Giannoulias and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) — are widely expected to make a run regardless of what Burris does.

Durbin’s comments came as members of the Senate Ethics Committee seemed reticent Tuesday to respond to a call from Republican leadership to conduct a swift investigation into the allegations about Burris.

Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) declined to discuss the panel’s preliminary inquiry into Burris’ actions in the lead-up to his appointment by Blagojevich, including when the committee expects to complete its work.

“I can’t tell you that,” she said.

Arriving for the Senate Democratic policy lunch Tuesday, Burris ignored questions from reporters about whether he has met with the Ethics panel to date. The Illinois Senator said only, “Two-eleven. Two-eleven,” a reference to the room he was attempting to locate.

Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told CNN that he hoped the Ethics Committee would work “quickly” on the investigation.

Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.), the longest-serving Republican on the Ethics panel, acknowledged McConnell’s statement but refused to otherwise discuss the ongoing investigation.

“I understand what the leader said, and I think all Members would like to see this move very quickly, but I have no comment on the specifics,” Roberts said.

A spokesman for Reid urged Monday to allow investigations under way by the Ethics Committee and Illinois state officials to run their course.

The government reform group Democracy 21 issued a letter Tuesday to Boxer and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the vice chairman on Ethics, urging the committee to interview Burris in a public hearing.

“To put it simply, the Senate and the public are entitled to an explanation now from Senator Burris, under oath, of his contradictory, conflicting and confusing statements regarding the Senator’s contacts and conversations with former Governor Blagojevich and his associates, and his fundraising activities for Blagojevich,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer wrote.

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.