- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

Democratic leaders backpedaled furiously Wednesday from past vows to block a Senate seat going to Roland W. Burris, whose appointment by scandal-smeared Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich over fellow Democrats’ objections cast a pall over the opening days of the 111th Congress.

After being barred from the Senate swearing-in ceremony a day earlier and sent retreating into the rain outside the Capitol, Mr. Burris was escorted Wednesday into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s inner sanctum for a parley and told that he was on course to be seated.

The shift follows cracks in the Senate Democratic Caucus and mounting support for the legality of Mr. Blagojevich’s authority to make the appointment, as legal scholars pointed out that the Constitution limits qualifications set for senators to questions of citizenship, age and residence.

The 41-member Congressional Black Caucus on Wednesday unanimously endorsed Mr. Burris for the Senate job.

Mr. Reid said unfolding events, including an Illinois Supreme Court challenge to enforce the appointment and Mr. Burris’ anticipated testimony Thursday at the Illinois legislature’s hearing on impeachment of Mr. Blagojevich, are the next steps for Mr. Burris in order 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 with Mr. Burris and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, the other senator from Illinois.

It was a far cry from the joint statement Mr. Reid and Mr. Durbin issued a week ago after the Burris appointment was announced by Mr. Blagojevich, who was arrested Dec. 9 on a federal complaint he tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

“Anyone appointed by Governor Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic caucus,” the duo had stated.

Mr. Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, has not been implicated in the “pay-to-play” scandal but remains under close scrutiny because he is Mr. Blagojevich’s choice.

A more confident Mr. Burris, 71, said he expected to be seated “very shortly” after his chat with Mr. Reid and Mr. Durbin.

There is also a growing consensus among Capitol Hill Democrats and the Obama transition team that the standoff is a drag on their ambitious agenda. Top Democrats have had to contend with pressure from liberal activists and black lawmakers to allow Mr. Burris to replace Mr. Obama as the country’s only black U.S. senator.

Mr. Reid moved to fend off the race issue, saying Mr. Burris at the meeting discounted race as a factor in the appointment standoff.

“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.”

Mr. Obama, who previously opposed any appointment by Mr. Blagojevich, also warmed to the idea of a Sen. Burris, saying he is ready to work with him if he is seated.

Mr. Reid cautioned that hurdles remain for Mr. Burris, including consideration by the Rules Committee and the need to get the Illinois secretary of state to sign the appointment documents. The signature is usually a pro forma endorsement but is a requirement under a Senate rule dating to 1884. It was the reason given for initially barring Mr. Burris from the Senate on Tuesday.

Outgoing chairman of the Rules Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said the Senate’s rule do not supercede the U.S. Constitution.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White refused to certify the appointment because of the corruption cloud over Mr. Blagojevich. An emergency lawsuit filed by Mr. Burris last week in the state Supreme Court could force Mr. White to approve the appointment. A decision could come as early as this week.

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