Will Harry Reid Barricade the Senate Door?

When scandal-ridden Governor Rod Blagojevich defiantly chose to appoint former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate he did not play the race card ... he played the whole deck.

In the process, he put the Democrats in the Senate between the proverbial racial rock and a hard place. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made it clear that he will not allow Burris to be sworn in on Tuesday when the Senate assembles: but will he physically block Burris from the floor of the Senate?

On June 11, 1963, Alabama's Governor George Wallace kept a campaign pledge to stand in the schoolhouse door to block integration of the state’s public schools. Governor Wallace physically stood in the doorway to block the attempt of two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, to register at the University of Alabama. When President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered its units to the university campus, Wallace stepped aside and allowed the black students to enter. As a result of the incident, Wallace became a hero to some and a pariah to most. Does Reid want to follow his lead by blocking the only black Senator from the Senate floor?

The racial implications of “the mess that Rod made” were ratcheted up when the Chicago Sun Times reported that Reid called Blagojevich on December 3 and argued against the appointment of Chicago Congressmen Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Rep. Danny Davis, or Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones, all of whom are black. Instead, Reid reportedly wanted Blagojevich to select either state Veterans Affairs chief Tammy Duckworth, who is Thai-American and recently lost a bid to be elected to Congress, or Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is white.

Reid’s conversation with Blagojevich was almost certainly captured on tape by federal prosecutors who have been tapping the governor’s calls, and it may ultimately be available for public consumption. In the meantime, most political analysts surmise that Reid’s concern about the potential appointment of one of the three black men was more about politics than racial prejudice. Those same political concerns apply to Roland Burris.

In 2010, the new senator from Illinois will have to face a statewide election to keep the seat. Reid and other Democrat leaders are concerned that the taint of the Blagojevich scandal attached to the selection will be difficult enough to overcome without any additional political baggage carried by certain individuals. Barack Obama was elected in Illinois thanks in part to a weak field, and but also because he was a youthful, charismatic communicator -- the same qualities that carried him to victory in November.

Reid was clearly concerned that none of the three black men under consideration by Blagojevich would be able to follow Obama’s path to statewide victory. How Reid expressed those concerns to Blagojevich will reveal whether, or to what extent, race was a part of the discussion. That tape could eventually prove damaging to Reid’s own reelection prospects in 2010, especially if he mishandles the racially sensitive issue of the Burris appointment.

But electability was clearly on Reid’s mind on December 3, and remains an issue with the appointment of Roland Burris, who has previously lost several statewide primary elections in Illinois and hasn’t won an election since 1990. When Burris announced that he was seeking the appointment, he noted that he did not plan to seek election for a full term in 2010 and simply wanted to be a “caretaker.”

But now he says he plans to seek election in 2010 if his appointment sticks. He isn’t even in the Senate yet but he is already backing out on his promises.

If Burris does seek election in 2010, then the Democrats may face a bitter primary followed by a tough general election fight with Burris as their standard bearer. If he doesn’t run then, the Democrats have created an open seat fight in what may be a tough midterm election year. Neither of those prospects looks appealing to Reid, and leading Democrats who will be seeking to round up the 60-vote filibuster proof majority that eluded them in 2008.

Reid will almost certainly avoid the political catastrophe of a photo showing him or the Capitol Hill police physically blocking Roland Burris from the Senate floor on Tuesday. But Roland Burris is a ticking time bomb that still threatens to explode in the face of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic Party. The only question is when that bomb blows and how much collateral damage it does.