The Roland Burris circus took a ludicrous turn today as Harry Reid and Senate Democrats threw the fate of the former Illinois attorney general, who was appointed by disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich to fill the unexpired term of President-elect Barack Obama last week, back to Illinois and the office of Secretary of State Jesse White.
It was White who refused to sign off on Burris, rejecting the paperwork on the appointment while making it clear he would not certify any candidate appointed by a governor who tried to to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder. At the same time, White admitted — and most legal experts have agreed — that he has no statutory authority in the matter and that his signature (and the affixing of the state seal to the appointment document) was pro forma. Burris attorneys have sued White, saying he has no standing to deny Burris the seat. They are asking the court to direct the secretary of state to certify the appointment. Legal observers say that Burris has an excellent case.
That may be so. But yesterday, when Mr. Burris dramatically tried to take his seat in the Senate, he was rebuffed by Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erikson, who told him that his paperwork was out of order, lacking as it did both White’s signature and the Great Seal of Illinois. This set up the dramatic meeting today between Burris and Reid to try and find a way out of this political quagmire, which was making the Democrats look ridiculous for having made a big show of denying Burris his seat only to retreat when the legal and political winds began to blow against them.
Reid, citing a 120-year-old Senate rule that required the signatures of both the governor and secretary of state on any appointment, lobbed the ball back into Jesse White’s court — a play that made the wizened old pol (and one of the most powerful Democrats in Illinois) get his back up and charge “Foul!”
“What the senate did to Roland Burris yesterday…they played a little bit of a game with him,” he [White] said.
The host asked him if he thought Reid had made him a “fall guy.”
“You’re absolutely correct,” he said. “It’s ugly.”
“I think the world of Roland Burris,” he said. “We’re the best of friends.”
“Roland Burris is going to be seated,” he predicted, saying he hopes Burris becomes the next senator from Illinois.
In effect, White is saying “No, thank you” to Harry Reid and telling him to fix his own darn messes.
Indeed, Reid and the Democratic leadership have been backtracking furiously, trying not to trip over their own feet after having released what sounded like a definitive, almost Shermanesque statement even before Burris had been announced as Blagojevich’s choice:
This is not about Mr. Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat,” the statement read. “Anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus.
I guess Reid and other Senate Democrats don’t care much for the people around here as it appears they are about to saddle them with a man who “cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois.” Here is Reid’s thoughts on the matter today:
After days in which Senate leaders had demonstrated determined resistance to Burris’ appointment to the Senate by scandal-tainted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Reid praised Burris as “candid and forthright.” And he suggested the testimony Burris is to give Thursday before the state legislature’s impeachment committee could be crucial to his prospects of gaining the seat.
“He’s going to go answer any other questions they might have. He’s not trying to avoid any responsibility and trying to hide anything,” said Reid (D-Nev.) “Once that’s done, we’ll be in a different position and see what we are going to do.”
One Democratic aide said the Senate leadership’s attitude toward the appointment had now “thawed.”
And what of our president-elect? Here’s his “Hope and Change” message following the announcement of Burris as Blagojevich’s choice (italics mine):
Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it. I believe the best resolution would be for the Governor to resign his office and allow a lawful and appropriate process of succession to take place. While Governor Blagojevich is entitled to his day in court, the people of Illinois are entitled to a functioning government and major decisions free of taint and controversy.”
So Obama agreed with Senate Democrats last week that Burris would take a seat in their little club not no way not no how. But here’s the “change” part of the “Hope and Change” scenario:
Obama told a news conference on Wednesday that the decision on whether to allow Burris to join the Senate is one for the Senate to make.
He said he has known Burris for years and would be happy to “work with him” if he ultimately gets seated but that he can’t go further than that.
Gone is agreement with Senate Democrats on their stance not to seat Burris to be replaced by the mushy cop-out of saying it was the Senate’s decision to make. It leaves us wondering: what if Obama had indicated he still thought that the original position taken by Senate Democrats on the issue was the correct one, would there be any question about Harry Reid fighting to keep Burris out of the Senate?
Now we will be witness to one of those Capitol Hill dances that politicians perform when they have to orchestrate their way out of trouble. Burris will testify before the impeachment committee tomorrow where he will be praised to the skies for his forthrightness and honesty. Then, Senate Democrats will curtsy most formally and tell us that in lieu of any evidence to the contrary they have no reason to believe that Burris isn’t clean before urging Secretary of State White to certify his appointment.
White, staring down an almost certain defeat in court, will say something about bowing to the wishes of the Senate and sign off on the appointment. And for a grand finale, Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, warming up in the bullpen awaiting his elevation to governor following the impeachment and conviction of Blagojevich, will issue a statement saying that he approves of the selection of Burris to replace Obama, thus taking the Democrats in Washington off the hook.
The fact that Burris runs a lobbying shop that did nearly $300,000 worth of business with the state under Blagojevich and that he and his law partners have contributed a little more than $20,000 to the governor’s campaigns since 2004 will all be forgotten as Senate Democrats, bowing to the political reality that they can’t refuse to seat a black man without upsetting their base of support in the African-American community, will embrace Mr. Burris as one of their own despite their original inclination to reject him out of hand.