In a scene reminiscent of a 1950’s western, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate designee Roland Burris, squared off at noon yesterday and neither moved fundamentally away from their positions. Reid made good on his threat to refuse to seat the man appointed by Governor Rob Blagojevich, who is under pressure to resign over criminal charges alleging he engaged in a play-to-pay scheme that involved the selling of the Senate vacancy. Burris, the former Illinois Comptroller and Attorney General, for his part, exhibited the toughness of Chicago politics and showed up to lay claim to the Senate seat.
The result was sheer chaos. Burris’ trek to the Senate floor was immediately circumvented when his credentials were rejected by the secretary of the Senate on a technicality; the lack of a signature by the Illinois Secretary of State and the state seal on his certificate of appointment. Having been turned back, Burris spoke to the media in a park adjacent to the Capitol and introduced himself as “the junior senator from the state of Illinois.” All of these events unfolded as the members of the 111th Congress were officially sworn-in on the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate. What is traditionally a fairly celebratory occasion was overshadowed by the ongoing controversy over the Illinois Senate vacancy.
Today Burris is scheduled to meet with Senator Reid and Senator Dick Durbin, the senior Senator from Illinois. There appears to be a move afoot to reach some compromise that would allow Burris to be seated to fill the remaining two years of Mr. Obama’s term with an “all bets are off” posture by Democrats toward his running for a full six year term. There is little reason for Burris to accept such an offer unless he feels that his odds of winning the seat outright are not favorable. His desire to serve is no secret given that he has twice sought the governor’s seat in his home state and made a run for the Senate as well.
Already some Senate Democrats, including Senator Diane Feinstein of California, are expressing their support for seating Burris. The challenge for Reid is that the hard line stand the party, including Mr. Obama, took against Governor Blagojevich left little room to maneuver if he refused to resign, as he did, and maintained his legal authority. Now the party is left with the challenge of finding a way to avoid appearing to be bested by Blagojevich while not offending Black voters. In many ways Burris is standing on the safest ground as the widely acknowledged credible appointee of a governor, who despite the charges leveled against him, is lawfully fulfilling his duty and exercising his authority.
What remains to be seen is how Democrats break this impasse with Mr. Burris seemingly ready to pursue all legal remedies to gain admittance to the Senate. This family squabble could not have come at a worse time for the party as final preparations are being made for the historic inauguration of the first Black President, the country is teetering on the brink of economic collapse and violence in the Middle East threatens to destabilize the region. There is also the practical matter that the majority party needs the vacancies in New York, Minnesota and Illinois filled to maximize its voting strength. The longer the Illinois debacle continues and the results in Minnesota between Al Franken and Norm Coleman remain contested, Democrats will be short-handed. New York Governor David Paterson has indicated he will not name a successor to Hillary Clinton until the former First Lady is confirmed by the Senate.
The longer this drama plays out, the greater the likelihood that Senator Reid’s stock will be diminished. Though some polls are indicating public support for the Majority Leader’s position, the internal politics of the Democratic Party may be a far greater factor than the general public’s negative opinion of Governor Blagojevich.