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Burris faces fight to take Senate seat

Democrats hesitant to accept appointee

Illinois U.S. Senate appointee Roland Burris talks  Monday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Illinois U.S. Senate appointee Roland Burris talks Monday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats struggled to avert a showdown steeped in race and corruption Monday as a defiant Roland Burris declared, “I’m a United States senator” and flew to the capital to claim President-elect Barack Obama’s old seat in Congress.

Even as he sought to pressure fellow Democrats, Burris signaled there were limits to his rebelliousness. “I’m not going to make a scene. I don’t want to give you all a circus,” he told reporters asking whether he intended to breach protocol by attempting to walk uninvited onto the Senate floor today.

The 71-year-old veteran of Illinois politics was still en route from his home state when Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he would not be permitted to take his seat when other new lawmakers are sworn into office. Burris “has not been certified by the state of Illinois” Reid said, a reference to incomplete paperwork that barely begins to describe the dispute.

While Burris has not been accused of any wrongdoing, he was named to the Senate last week by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who faces charges of having attempted to sell the seat.

Senate officials said it was possible Reid would try and have Burris’ case referred to the Rules Committee for review, a move that would effectively sidetrack the issue while the complicated political and legal situation in Illinois could be sorted out. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss possible developments.

Reid, D-Nev., had appeared to leave open the possibility of a compromise over the weekend after failing to persuade Blagojevich to leave the seat vacant. Burris is to meet privately on Wednesday with the majority leader in his office just off the Senate floor.

Burris, who is black, downplayed the issue of race at a news conference before boarding a flight from Chicago to Washington – even though supporters have given it prominence.

“I cannot control my supporters. I have never in my life, in all my years of being elected to office, thought anything about race,” he said.

Other controversy aside, Democrats privately expressed concern that Burris would not be able to hold the seat in a special election that must be held in 2010. Reid has denied that political calculations are involved, but one Democratic official suggested that one potential outcome would be for Burris to be seated and pledge to retire in 2010.

Burris sidestepped the issue at an airport news conference before leaving Illinois, saying, “I can’t negotiate in the press.”

There were mounting legal complications, as well.

While Blagojevich has signed formal appointments papers, Jesse White, the Illinois secretary of state, has not, and Senate rules require that signature.

Burris, in turn, has gone to court hoping to win an order for White to sign the necessary paperwork, and has also threatened to sue to take his seat in the Senate.

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