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Burris Acts as Senate’s Outsider

After months of living under an ethics cloud, Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) has successfully changed the media’s focus from whether he improperly accepted his Senate seat from a now-disgraced former governor to whether he will be a liberal rabble-rouser during the chamber’s upcoming health care debate.

“The Senator has been speaking out about issues that are important to him,— Burris spokesman Jim O’Connor said. “To the extent that people may be listening more closely these days, he’s gratified that it allows him to have a stronger voice for the people of the state of Illinois.—

Burris is hardly the lone Senate Democrat who supports a public insurance option, but unlike other backers, the lame-duck Member whose term expires in January 2011 has made headlines recently for what appears to be an uncompromising stance on the bill: He will oppose it — and may even support a filibuster — if the measure does not include a robust public option.

It’s a position he has restated two to three times a week on the floor of the Senate for nearly a month now.

That stance might not be such a big deal, except it could provide him with substantial leverage over the man who initially refused to seat him in the chamber last year. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will likely need all 60 members of the Democratic Conference to overcome a certain GOP filibuster attempt.

But Senate Democrats said Burris, appointed to his seat by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), needs to tread gingerly as he draws his lines in the sand over health care.

“If he’s not careful, he trades irrelevancy for infamy if he takes down the president’s top priority,— one Senate Democratic aide warned.

Indeed, Senate Democrats are deeply skeptical of Burris’ motivation for taking a hard-line stance on the public option, given that senior liberals have been giving themselves wiggle room in their public statements.

“He’s totally motivated by the need to feel relevant and the desire to have the White House and the leader court him a little bit,— the Senate aide said. “He wants a meeting with the president.—

Of course, Burris’ vote will not be an issue if Reid can muster the 60 votes needed to keep the public insurance option in the bill he plans to bring to the floor, possibly later this month. The trouble could come if that provision gets stripped on the floor and replaced with some other policy proscription. If that happens, Burris is unlikely to be the only liberal threatening to oppose the measure.

Last week, Burris denied that his position on health care is driven by a desire to get publicity or power.

“I’m not going to be an obstructionist. I’m not here for some ego trip,— Burris reportedly told a Chicago television station on Nov. 2. “I’m here to speak out for the people who have spoken to me.—

Asked last week in the Capitol whether his comments on obstruction indicated he would not vote for a filibuster, a testy Burris hedged.

“That means I will not be an obstructionist. OK? Don’t interpret,— Burris said. “That means I will not be obstinate to create a problem. … I will seek to understand what everybody is talking about. I will listen to them. I will not create any obstruction, but it does not mean what you think it means.—

Burris has been something of an outcast in the party since he was sworn into office in January following a dust-up over whether he should be seated.

“If somebody feels isolated, it’s all the more likely they may position themselves with little regard for whether it comports with the leadership’s strategy,— another Senate Democratic aide posited. “I don’t think he feels like he owes anybody anything because of the way everything [surrounding his swearing-in] was handled.—

When Blagojevich was arrested last December on charges that he attempted to sell the Senate seat of President Barack Obama for campaign cash and political favors, Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asserted that they would not seat anyone whom the accused governor appointed. But while he was still in office, Blagojevich tapped Burris, a former state attorney general and former gubernatorial candidate.

Though Reid and Durbin attempted to prevent Burris’ installment, Burris pressed his case and rallied the African-American community and the Congressional Black Caucus to his side. He was seated Jan. 15 after Reid bowed to public pressure.

But Senate leaders’ fears about Burris’ potential ethical problems appeared to be well-founded when it became apparent that Burris may not have testified truthfully about his dealings with Blagojevich aides during sworn testimony before an Illinois legislative committee pursuing the ex-governor’s impeachment.

Burris himself later revealed that contrary to his testimony that he had spoken with just one of the governor’s advisers, he had actually spoken with several Blagojevich associates before his appointment. He also disclosed that he had even offered to raise money for the governor during a phone conversation with Blagojevich’s brother during which he also lobbied for the Senate appointment.

“God knows, number one, I, I want to help Rod,— Burris said according to an FBI transcript of the conversation. “Number two, I also want to, you know, hope I get a consideration to get that appointment.—

Though an Illinois state prosecutor declined to prosecute him for perjury, the Senate Ethics Committee continues to investigate. But the controversy — and his inability to raise campaign funds because of it — caused Burris to declare in July that he would not seek election to a full term next year.

Sources said Burris has not testified before the Ethics panel, but both Reid and Durbin have. Illinois state Sen. Jim Durkin (R) confirmed Friday that he was one of several state lawmakers who were also interviewed this summer by attorneys for the Ethics Committee, but he declined to offer details.

An Oct. 11 Chicago Sun-Times article said Ethics lawyers asked Durkin and other state lawmakers whether Burris should have revealed the conversation he had with Blagojevich’s brother during his testimony before the impeachment committee. Durkin did not dispute the accuracy of the Sun-Times report.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Ethics Committee declined comment, and O’Connor said the office has a policy of not talking about investigations.

Burris’ legal and ethical troubles have cost him more than a diminished reputation in the halls of the Capitol. Burris reported nearly $650,000 in legal debt over a six-month period, according to his legal defense fund’s most recent financial report. His campaign committee has a debt of $139,038, but Burris has raised only $47,835 this year and has only $1,738 in cash on hand.

O’Connor dismissed criticism of Burris’ motives, saying Burris feels strongly about the public insurance option and takes this issue, like every other issue, “very seriously.—

O’Connor said Burris gradually developed his stance as he listened to his constituents and learned more about how the lack of insurance options affects disadvantaged communities the most.

“It’s built as he’s talked to more and more Illinoisans,— O’Connor said.

But Democrats believe they will be able to persuade Burris to support the bill in the end.

“He’s going to vote to oppose the president’s top priority?— a third Senate Democratic aide said. “I don’t think anyone expects him to go down that path, but I honestly can’t tell.—

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.

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