Democrats to Deny Burris a Senate Seat

Posted January 5, 2009 at 6:53pm

“I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in.”

That’s essentially what top Senate Democratic leaders intend to tell Roland Burris (D) today if he shows up on Capitol Hill as scheduled to be sworn in to fill Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate seat in the 111th Congress.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) argued that Burris has not met the legal threshold to be sworn in, with Durbin adding that Burris has no authority to enter the Senate chamber. Burris was appointed to fill Obama’s seat by disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), and Democrats have made clear for weeks they would not install any individual appointed by him.

“Roland Burris has not been certified by the state of Illinois. When that takes place, we’ll review it,” Reid told reporters following a bipartisan, bicameral meeting with Obama in the Capitol on Monday.

Reid and Durbin cited Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s (D) refusal to certify Burris’ appointment as the basis for claiming that Burris has not met the legal requirements to fill the seat and be sworn in as a Member of the new Congress. Burris believes the governor’s appointment was all that was necessary to certify his selection, and he has taken the matter to state court.

Burris is a former Illinois attorney general, and Senate Democratic leaders don’t have a problem with him personally. Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau indicated that the Majority Leader would approve of Burris should he be appointed at a later date by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who would ascend to the governor’s chair if Blagojevich stepped down or was impeached and removed.

Blagojevich was arrested by federal officials late last year for allegedly peddling Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. Democrats initially called for a special election to fill the seat, then switched gears and instead attempted to pressure Blagojevich to resign so Quinn could appoint a successor free of the governor’s ethical taint.

Impeachment proceedings are currently under way in the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield.

Burris arrived in Washington, D.C., on Monday evening, and he plans to show up at the Capitol this morning to participate in the Senate swearing-in proceedings.

“I intend to be sworn in,” he told CNN on Monday.

A spokesman for Burris declined to respond to comments made by Reid and Durbin, but in multiple interviews he has made it clear he sees no legal reason he should not be installed as a Senator today.

Durbin, emphasizing that he has been friends with Burris for more than 30 years and isn’t interested in a confrontation, said Burris is welcome to watch today’s swearing in ceremony on television from his leadership office. Durbin made clear that Burris would not become a Senator today, but he did not discount the possibility that a solution could ultimately reached allowing the former state attorney general to succeed Obama.

“I am reaching out to him to let him know that if he wants to come into the building and be in my office during the ceremony — the swearing-in — to witness it in my office over television, he is welcome. We’re not trying to keep him out of the building, that is not our point,” Durbin said. “Access to the Senate floor is strictly limited under the Senate rules, and unfortunately for his position, he does not have the legal status of a Senator-elect.”

Since the Blagojevich scandal broke, Senate Republicans have been calling for a special election to fill Obama’s seat. Senate GOP leaders are adhering to that position, but they are unlikely to get involved in the Burris situation when it comes to the halls of the Capitol.

The office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) declined to comment further on the matter on Monday, but Senate GOP aides were saying privately that Republicans were inclined to let Democrats deal with the contentious issue on their own.

Burris is scheduled to meet on Wednesday with Reid and Durbin in what the Majority Whip described as a courtesy call.

Democrats are inclined to bottle up his appointment as long as possible, in the hopes that Blagojevich will leave office — voluntarily or otherwise. Another option being discussed by some Senate Democratic aides is making a deal with Burris, with Democratic leaders opting to install him if he agreed not to stand for election to a full term in 2010.

Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker characterized the leadership’s position as less about Burris more about honoring the Senate rules.

“Sen. Durbin and Sen. Reid want to sit down with Mr. Burris and see if there is a path forward,” Shoemaker said.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.