WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leaders opened a path Wednesday to seating Roland Burris in the U.S. Senate after days of distracting political controversy over their refusal to do so and a behind-the-scenes request from President-elect Barack Obama to resolve the matter.
Though Obama at first supported party leaders in barring Burris from the Senate and maintained neutrality in comments Wednesday, he privately urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other key Democrats during meetings Monday to drop their opposition to seating Burris, said a senior Democratic official.
Reid emerged from a 45-minute meeting with Burris at the Capitol to praise the former Illinois attorney general as “candid and forthright” and outline a process through which Burris could be seated. The Democratic leader stressed testimony Burris is to give today to an Illinois state legislative committee considering impeachment charges against Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“He’s going to go answer any other questions they might have. He’s not trying to avoid any responsibility and (not) trying to hide anything,” Reid said. “Once that’s done, we’ll be in a different position and see what we are going to do.”
Burris later predicted at a press conference that he would take the Senate seat once held by Obama “very soon.”
Though Reid’s staff denied a deal to seat Burris had been struck, a Democratic Senate leadership aide said opposition to Burris’ appointment had “thawed.”
It was a dramatic reversal for a party leadership that just last week vowed that Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris “will ultimately not stand.”
Undeterred, Burris made the case in a marathon series of talk show appearances that he was qualified and that there was no evidence his appointment was tainted by corruption.
When the new session of Congress opened on Tuesday, Burris showed up to claim his seat, only to be refused, producing a media melee and television images of a 71-year-old black man turned out of the U.S Capitol into the rain.
Before the end of the day Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., broke with party leaders and called for Burris to be seated, arguing that he was lawfully appointed and his rejection would set a dangerous precedent.