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Burris rejected; Senate bid wins crucial support

Illinois U.S. Senate Appointee Roland Burris makes a statement after departing Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009. AP photo
Illinois U.S. Senate Appointee Roland Burris makes a statement after departing Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009. AP photo

WASHINGTON – Embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's pick failed to capture President-elect Barack Obama's old Senate seat Tuesday in a wild piece of political theater, but the Democrats' opposition cracked when a key chairwoman said seating him was the legal thing to do.

Democratic leaders, set to meet with Burris on Wednesday, were searching for a way to defuse the dispute before it further overshadows the 111th Congress. Knowledgeable Senate officials of both parties widely predicted that the saga would end with Burris being seated. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

That seemed more likely late Tuesday, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein rejected the reasoning that all of the chamber's Democrats, herself included, had cited in a letter last week — that corruption charges against Burris' patron, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, tainted his appointment.

"Does the governor have the power, under law, to make the appointment? And the answer is yes," said Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, which judges the credentials of senators.

Blagojevich, accused of trying to sell Obama's vacant seat, defied Democratic leaders who said they wouldn't seat anyone he chose — forcing them to reject the veteran Illinois politician, who would be the only black person in the Senate. Burris has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Burris marched into the Capitol earlier Tuesday, declaring himself "the junior senator from the state of Illinois." But Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson rejected his certification, as he knew she would, saying it lacked Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White's signature and the state seal. White refused to sign the certification.

Late Tuesday, Feinstein urged the Senate to settle the matter, saying that not seating Burris would have ramifications for appointments to fill vacant seats by governors "all over America."

"Mr. Burris is a senior, experienced politician. He has been attorney general, he has been controller, and he is very well-respected. I am hopeful that this will be settled," she said.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier, Reid had said, "Mr. Burris is not in possession of the necessary credentials from the state of Illinois."

Burris, meanwhile, pivoted from his rejection at the U.S. Capitol to the Illinois Supreme Court, asking it to order White to certify his appointment.

Burris was expected to meet with Reid on Wednesday.

It would be his second appearance at the Capitol in as many days. His first included an escort by Capitol police officers to Erickson's third-floor office for what was described as a highly cordial, 21-minute meeting.

Burris, 71, then led a small mob of lawyers, consultants, police and reporters across the street in pouring rain, to a news conference which Burris aides said Reid had tacitly allowed.

Erickson, Burris reported, had advised him that "I would not be accepted, and I will not be seated, and I will not be permitted on the floor."

The former Illinois attorney general said he was "not seeking to have any type of confrontation" over taking the seat. In addition to his court filing late in the day in Illinois, Burris said he was considering a federal lawsuit to force Senate Democrats to seat him.

It was a distraction for majority Democrats eager to project an image of progress with Obama on an economic stimulus package estimated to cost as much as $800 billion.

Democrats and Obama have said that the corruption charges against Blagojevich would strip credibility from anyone he appointed to the seat.

Blagojevich denies federal accusations that he tried to sell the seat Obama has given up for the presidency.

In a written statement Tuesday, the governor said allegations against him shouldn't be held against Burris, whom he called a "good and decent man."

"The people of Illinois are entitled to be represented by two senators in the United States Senate," Blagojevich said.

An attorney for Burris, Timothy W. Wright III, said that "our credentials were rejected by the secretary of the Senate. We were not allowed to be placed in the record book. We were not allowed to proceed to the floor for purposes of taking oath. All of which we think was improperly done and is against the law of this land."

Some of Burris' supporters have bemoaned the fact that Democrats would stand in the way of the Senate gaining its only black member. Burris himself downplayed the issue of race, telling reporters: "I cannot control my supporters. I have never in my life, in all my years of being elected to office, thought anything about race."

"I'm presenting myself as the legally appointed senator from the state of Illinois. It is my hope and prayer that they recognize that the appointment is legal," he said on CBS' "The Early Show."

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus said Tuesday that Burris should be seated.

"A lot of people want to talk about race or the governor and his problems, but the bottom line is you have a sitting governor who has certain legal rights and authorities and he's made an appointment," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat. "This is an issue that goes beyond race."

Associated Press Writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.

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