- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

UPDATED:

An increasingly confident Roland W. Burris of Illinois, whose disputed appointment to the U.S. Senate has befuddled the Democratic leadership, said Wednesday that a path has been cleared for him to assume the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

“My whole interest in this experience has been … to represent my great state.” Mr. Burris said. “And very shortly I will have the opportunity to do that as the junior senator from the fifth largest state in the great country. Isn’t that great.”

The upbeat assessment followed a meeting with Senate Democratic leaders who appeared to reversed course and signal a newfound acceptance for Mr. Burris, who was turned away from being seated a day earlier and has faced stiff resistance since he was appointed by scandal-plagued Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“I’m very pleased this afternoon,” Mr. Burris said at a press conference a at Washington hotel. “I’m happy.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said procedural hurdles remain before Mr. Burris sworn in as a senator, but he identified avenues that could lead Mr. Burris to the senate seat.

Mr. Reid said unfolding events, including an Illinois Supreme Court challenge to enforce the appointment and Mr. Burris’ anticipated testimony Thursday at the Illinois legislatures’ hearing on impeachment of Mr. Blagojevich, are the next steps for Mr. Burris to reach his goal.

“Once that’s done, we’ll be in a different position and see what we are going to do,” Mr. Reid told reporters after a 45-minute meeting in his Capitol office with Mr. Burris and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, the other senator from Illinois.

A spokesman for Mr. Reid, Rodell Molineau, denied earlier reports that the leadership had decided to seat Mr. Burris. He said no decision has been reached and they are “looking at a number of options.”

The appointment of Mr. Burris, the former state attorney general, is under intense scrutiny because of Mr. Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 in a federal corruption investigation that included charges he tried to sell the senate seat, which was vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

Mr. Blagojevich appointed Mr. Burris on Dec. 30 after the Illinois legislature failed to either strip him of the appointment authority or call a special election to fill the seat. Mr. Burris has not been implicated in the “pay-to-play” scandal and opponents of the appointment have stressed his qualifications for the job even as they condemn the process that sent him to Washington.

Mr. Reid also moved to fend off mounting pressure from liberal activists and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to seat Mr. Burris, who is black, to replace Mr. Obama as the country’s only black U.S. senator. He said Mr. Burris discounted the racial issue during the meeting.

“One of the first things he said to us [was], ‘Hey, this is nothing that’s racial. I understand that,’” Mr. Reid said. “So a lot of people tried to make this a racial issue, but Roland Burris has not and will not.”

The once solid resistance to Mr. Burris ascending to the Senate appeared to thaw across Washington.

Mr. Obama, who previously said he opposed any appointment by his tarnished home-state governor, suddenly warmed to the idea of a Senator Burris.

“If he gets seated, I will work with Roland Burris, just like I work with all the other senators, to make sure that the people of Illinois and the people of the country are served,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he wanted to stay out of the debate over the appointment.

However, he said he knows Mr. Burris personally and described him as a “fine public servant.”

Mr. Burris was turned away from Tuesday’s swearing in ceremony by the secretary of the senate because his credentials did not have the signature of the Illinois secretary of state.

Mr. Reid said the lack of the signature, which is usually a pro forma endorsement but is a requirement under a Senate rule dating to 1884, remained an impediment to seating Mr. Burris. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White refused to certify the appointment because of the corruption cloud around Mr. Blagojevich. An emergency lawsuit filed by Mr. Burris last week in the state supreme court could force Mr. White to sign off on the appointment. A decision could come as early as this week.

Mr. Durbin said he called Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan on Tuesday and urged her to expedite the case.

“We are hoping that, at the end of the day, if there is a court order and a [court mandate], that the secretary of state would certify the signature of Governor Blagojevich and then comply completely with Senate rules,” he said.

Mr. Reid said the appointment nevertheless may have to go through the Senate Rules Committee to make sure the appointment process is thoroughly scrutinized.

“But remember what all this has brought about,” Mr. Reid said. “It has brought about transparency in this appointment. Blagojevich, who has a reputation that’s not very good. This is something that had to be looked into in detail, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

The nominee gained a powerful ally Tuesday as Sen. Diane Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of the Rules Committee, said Mr. Blagojevich has the legal authority to appoint Mr. Burris

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this article.

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