Burris Is Sticking Around

Posted March 3, 2009 at 6:44pm

It seems the days of Senators being shamed into resigning over alleged misdeeds may be over.

Shunned by Senate Democratic leaders and his state party, embattled Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) is riding out the storm over his own shifting explanations for how he was appointed by a now-impeached governor. He could arguably spend the next year and a half in the chamber as a political outcast — but a Senator nonetheless.

Democrats are still smarting over what many feel were misleading assurances that Burris offered to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about his actions prior to his appointment by disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

But Democrats, who just days ago were calling on him to resign, have now resigned themselves to the fact that Burris doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

“It’s time to get out your remote to change the channel from Entertainment Tonight back to the news,— Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said. “People are losing their homes. People are losing their jobs, and they are worried about affording college for their kids and health care for their family. And those are the things we’re going to spend time talking about, not the junior Senator from Illinois.—

Durbin told Burris in a private meeting last week that he should consider resigning. Similarly, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) told reporters a week and a half ago that Burris should resign and a special election should be held to fill the seat.

Quinn backed off that statement this week, saying, “Roland has made it crystal clear he won’t resign. Let’s move on.—

Burris also has been buoyed in recent days by support from African-American leaders in Illinois and in Congress who withheld their backing in the immediate aftermath of reports that Burris did not fully reveal his dealings with Blagojevich. The ex-governor appointed Burris after being arrested for allegedly trying to sell the vacant Senate seat of President Barack Obama for political favors and campaign cash.

Burris ignored a reporter’s repeated attempts to question him Tuesday.

Even though the pressure may be off Burris to resign immediately, Democrats and Republicans said his path would still be much like other Members who have waited for the news media to move on to other scandals.

Aides and Senators said Burris would likely continue to be treated cordially by his colleagues in order to ensure that he remains a reliable Democratic vote. But he will also continue to be kept at arm’s length to prevent his questionable ethical situation from tainting their own.

“While the spotlight is dimmer on him, the questions aren’t going away,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “Whether it’s in a formal setting of the Senate Ethics Committee or with a media outlet or with his constituents, there needs to be a fuller airing of the circumstances surrounding his appointment.—

Many Democrats say Burris’ biggest sin may have come during a Jan. 7 meeting with Reid and Durbin. After that meeting, Reid praised Burris as appearing “candid and forthright.—

Both leaders conditioned his ability to be seated on his full and complete testimony before an Illinois panel pursuing Blagojevich’s impeachment. However, Burris did not reveal under repeated questioning his attempted fundraising for Blagojevich, as well as his full contacts with the former governor’s associates.

“At best, it seems he’s guilty of a sin of omission and of not volunteering information that is hugely consequential in the eyes of most people,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said. Other Democrats said it appears Burris blatantly lied to Reid and Durbin, a situation that has permanently damaged his credibility in a chamber where a Senator’s word is often considered his bond.

Burris is now in jeopardy of facing state perjury charges for failing to acknowledge under repeated questioning by the state panel his contacts with Blagojevich aides.

He testified under oath that he had limited contact with Blagojevich associates in the runup to his appointment. Burris later acknowledged through a voluntary affidavit and a series of media interviews that he had conversations with as many as five associates of the governor prior to his appointment, and he even tried to raise campaign money for Blagojevich while lobbying for the Senate seat.

The Senate Ethics Committee has also opened a preliminary investigation.

“Given that the Burris situation is much of their own making, the best Senate Democrats can hope for is that Roland Burris becomes an invisible Member, like Larry Craig was at the end of his term,— one senior Senate GOP aide said.

Not unlike Craig — an Idaho Republican who retired from the chamber last year after being arrested in a 2007 airport bathroom sex sting — Burris has ignored calls from high-ranking members of his own party to step down and is pushing back against allegations that he engaged in criminal wrongdoing.

Of course, Craig pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, while Burris has not been charged, and some legal experts have questioned whether the state prosecutor could win a perjury case against Burris, given the evidence.

Burris and Craig aren’t the only recent examples of Senators hanging on to their seats despite having ethical or legal clouds over their heads.

A 2008 conviction for taking illegal gifts didn’t prompt then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to step down, though he lost his re-election bid. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is experiencing something of a political comeback after weathering salacious allegations in 2007 that he paid a prostitute for sex.

Craig defused calls for his resignation by pledging not to run for re-election, something Democrats have sought from Burris.

“If Roland Burris came out tomorrow and said I’m not going to run for re-election,’ this would all go away,— said a Republican Senator who asked to remain anonymous.

This Senator said the pressure that Republicans felt to push Craig out nearly evaporated when he pledged to retire, rather than run again.

“Members were willing to let him go out on his terms,— the Senator said. “It seems to be different with Burris. [Democrats] don’t seem to be willing to let the process play out.—

Senate Democrats privately acknowledged that the compromise that they hope for at this point is for Burris to make it known that he will not seek re-election in 2010.

“He’s not a pariah like Larry Craig. He’s just tripping over the truth time and again, and it’s killing his credibility. It’s time for the drama to end so we can actually win this seat. We need this seat in 2010 — it’s the president’s seat — and while the Republicans are lining up solidly behind a potential [candidate], we have a deep bench of talented candidates worried about when they can jump in because of Burris,— one Senate Democratic aide said.

But Burris spokesman Jim O’Connor reiterated Tuesday that Burris, who has a rudimentary 2010 campaign Web site, “has made no decision about the 2010 race.—