Monday, January 05, 2009

Mr. Burris Goes To Washington...

Jeff Haynes/Reuters
Roland W. Burris talked to reporters at news conference at Midway Airport in Chicago on Monday before leaving for Washington.

January 6, 2009
Defiant Burris Heads To Washington To Claim Senate Seat

CHICAGO — Even as Senate leaders continued to challenge his appointment to the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, Roland W. Burris headed to Washington on Monday, setting the stage for a public showdown on Capitol Hill.

In a news conference at Midway airport in Chicago before his scheduled 2:20 p.m. flight to Baltimore, a defiant Mr. Burris told reporters that he was not concerned about the fact that the Illinois secretary of state, Jesse White, has rejected the paperwork that would officially send Mr. Burris to the Senate.

“Why don’t you all understand that what has been done here is legal?” he said. “I am the junior senator from Illinois, and I wish my colleagues in the press would recognize that.”

He later added, “This is all politics and theater, but I am the junior senator according to every law book in the nation.”

Senate leaders have repeatedly said that they intend to block Mr. Burris from joining the chamber, given his appointment last week by this state’s embattled governor, Rod R. Blagojevich. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, has said that the Senate has the legal right to bar Mr. Burris from the new session, which begins Tuesday. And CNN reported Monday that an aide to Nancy Erickson, the secretary of the United States Senate, said that Ms. Erickson had rejected Mr. Burris’s certificate of appointment because, though it was signed by Mr. Blagojevich, it was not cosigned by Mr. White, as the Senate’s rules require.

While Senate leaders weighed their options concerning an appointment they say is tainted by Mr. Blagojevich, a two-term Democrat who was charged last month with, among other things, trying to sell the Senate seat for personal gain, Mr. Burris’s allies here stood firmly behind him.

They pointed to his long political record as the first black leader elected to statewide office in Illinois and expressed their sense that the seat held by Mr. Obama, who had been the only black person in the Senate, should go to another African-American.

“We’re seeking to carry out this opportunity and all the responsibilities pertaining to it,” Mr. Burris said as he left New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday, where hundreds had gathered to support him, some with signs referring to him as senator.

From the church’s pulpit, Mr. Burris told the predominantly African-American crowd that his 4-year-old grandson had asked him what all the fuss was about over the past few days, and he said he responded that it was about his grandson’s own future.

“We’re clear on my credentials,” Mr. Burris said, adding later, “I hope they will follow the law.”

In an appearance on “Meet the Press” on NBC, Mr. Reid said he was leaving the door open to negotiations.

Aides to Mr. Burris, a former Illinois attorney general who seemed to end his political career years ago after several defeats in his efforts to become governor of Illinois, have indicated that they were trying to talk to Senate leaders privately and wanted to avoid any public showdown.

Still, asked if Mr. Burris might become a senator, Mr. Reid replied: “It’s going to be very difficult for that to occur.” But he added, “I’ve learned, being a senator for the time I have, that anything can happen.”

Mr. Reid said he would meet with the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, on Monday night in hopes of reaching a bipartisan decision.

Mr. Burris is scheduled to meet with Senate Democratic leaders on Wednesday, including Mr. Reid and Senator Richard J. Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois.

“We’re going to visit with him,” Mr. Reid said. “We would hope that in the meantime, Governor Blagojevich will do the right thing and step down.”

Despite repeated threats from Senate Democrats that they would not seat anyone Mr. Blagojevich appointed, Mr. Reid said, “There’s always room to negotiate.”

“So you’re not saying no completely that he won’t serve?” asked David Gregory, the host of “Meet the Press.”

“That’s right,” Mr. Reid said, nodding.

At the Chicago church, residents said they had formed a group in the past week in support of Mr. Burris’s appointment, a group that seemed far less focused on Mr. Blagojevich than on the need for a black leader in the Senate.

“The U.S. Senate must reflect all of America,” said Bishop Simon Gordon, one of several pastors at the sendoff.

Representative Bobby L. Rush, an Illinois Democrat who attended the event, described the standoff over Mr. Burris in racial terms, portraying the Senate as “the last bastion of racial plantation politics in America.”

Of the notion that Mr. Obama has also denounced any appointment by Mr. Blagojevich, Mr. Rush said the president-elect had been “ill advised” on the question.

In the NBC interview, Mr. Reid also addressed reports about a conversation he had with Mr. Blagojevich over the vacant Senate seat days before the governor’s Dec. 9 arrest on federal charges of conspiring to commit fraud and soliciting bribery, accusations he has vehemently denied.

On Friday, Mr. Blagojevich, through his spokesman, revealed Mr. Reid’s Dec. 3 phone call to the governor’s campaign office, seeming to offer it as an alternative explanation for why Senate leaders like Mr. Reid might be contesting the choice of Mr. Burris, who was never raised as a possible appointee during the call.

“I think the governor thinks that it shows that Harry Reid may have a horse in this race, and it’s not Roland Burris,” Lucio Guerrero, the governor’s spokesman, said on Friday.

A person with knowledge of the conversation, which occurred as federal investigators were recording Mr. Blagojevich’s calls, said Mr. Reid had seemed concerned that some of the Democrats mentioned as possible appointees, including Representatives Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and Danny K. Davis, both of whom are black, might be harder to elect when the appointment period expires in two years.

Mr. Reid reportedly indicated that Lisa Madigan, the state attorney general (and daughter of Michael Madigan, the powerful speaker of the Illinois House), and Tammy Duckworth, a former candidate for Congress and a wounded veteran of the Iraq war, had better odds in a statewide election.

Mr. Reid acknowledged in the interview Sunday that he had spoken with the governor. Such conversations are routine in circumstances where a member of the Senate is to be appointed, Mr. Reid’s office has said. But Mr. Reid said he did not recall the specifics of the call and added that Mr. Jackson would make a fine senator.

As for any inference that race may have been an issue in his discussion with Mr. Blagojevich, Mr. Reid responded: “He’s making all this up. For anyone to suggest anything racial is part of the Blagojevich spin.”

The difficulty with seating Mr. Burris, Mr. Reid said, had nothing to do with race or his conversation with Mr. Blagojevich. The governor “is obviously a corrupt individual,” he said, and therefore any appointment he makes would be tainted.

“I don’t know a thing wrong with Mr. Burris,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Durbin also defended Mr. Reid in an appearance on “This Week” on ABC. He dismissed any claims by Mr. Blagojevich as an “outrage” and as a sign that the governor, facing impeachment, was “now flailing in every direction trying to show defiance in the appointment of Roland Burris and attacking everybody in sight.”

State lawmakers are returning to Springfield this week, earlier than expected, to continue impeachment proceedings against the governor.

Mr. Durbin tried to put aside any suggestion that race was behind the challenges to the appointment of Mr. Burris, whom he said he had known for decades.

“We have a proud record in the land of Lincoln of electing African-American candidates to statewide office,” Mr. Durbin said, taking particular note of Mr. Burris, who nearly three decades ago was elected comptroller; Jesse White, the secretary of state who has refused to co-sign paperwork sending Mr. Burris’s appointment to the Senate; and Mr. Obama.

“There is no question about race,” Mr. Durbin said.

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