Huffpost Politics
Sam Stein and Ryan Grim Headshot

Mr. Burris Goes To Washington: The Inside Story

Posted: Updated:

When disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to fill a vacant Senate seat on December 30, Senate Democrats reacted strongly, refusing to grant the appointment. On Monday, they reversed course. Burris was deemed acceptable as the junior Senator from Illinois.

"How were we supposed to react?" asked Harry Reid on January 7, as it was becoming increasingly clear that Burris was on course for Congress. After all, Reid reminded reporters, Blogojevich had referred to the Senate seat as "an effin' goldmine."

Reflecting on what happened, Reid spokesman Jim Manley argued on Monday that once Blagojevich was arrested for allegedly trying to sell the Senate seat, leadership had to go big.

"We're not going to apologize for coming out with such a strong statement initially. In light of the charges against him there was no other tack to take," he said. "Certainly the Senate felt it wasn't dealing with your everyday politician. 'Who knows what's in that man's mind?'" Manley said, in reference to the Illinois Governor.

And yet, while each individual step that Senate Democrats took through the Burris minefield may have been the right one, by the end of the two-week stroll the process still blew up in their faces. Democrats were left with a colleague whose volatile two weeks of media performances did little to assuage concerns about the next two years.

"The party ended up looking bad on this," said one Senate aide. "We hardly know anything about Burris... The only bright spot is the circus is over."

Added Stu Rothenberg, of the Rothenberg Political Report: "It looks to me as if Senate Democrats crawled out on a limb without looking to see if someone else had an axe. Burris played his hand well, and Senate Democrats probably didn't have the law on their side on this one."

Light first began shining through the cracks in the Democratic wall when Majority Leader Reid (D-Nev.) went on NBC's "Meet the Press" on January 4. He began with a hard line. "We determine who sits in the Senate," he said. "So there's clearly legal authority for us to do whatever we want to."

The interview, however, ended on a bit of a backpedal. "There's always room to negotiate," the Majority Leader offered.

Burris made his first offer on January 6, when he showed up in a frigid rain to present his credentials to the Secretary of the Senate and was told that, without a signature from Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, his paperwork wasn't in order.

Later that day, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the outgoing chair of the Rules Committee, said that from a legal standpoint, Burris ought to be seated. According to a senior Democratic Senate aide, Feinstein called Reid personally to press Burris' case. "All due respect to Dianne," said Reid, "it's not a legal appointment."

The next day, Burris met for 45 minutes with Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). They emerged to tell the press corps and assembled TV cameras - without prompting - that Burris didn't think their refusal was racially motivated.

"Roland Burris, one of the first things he said to us, 'This is nothing that's racial. I understand that,'" Reid recounted.

When Durbin took the mic stand, he replayed the Burris exoneration.

"At the outset, he said, 'I want to make it clear: I understand that this controversy has nothing to do with my race and I understand that both of you have excellent records when it comes to racial relations,'" Durbin offered. "So, I want to make sure that everyone understands, we are trying to deal with this in terms of the rules of the Senate, the laws of our land, the laws of the state of Illinois and our constitutions."

But despite the public proclamations, race clearly was playing a role. Shortly after Burris was nominated, he broached the issue on NBC's "Today" show. "It is a fact there are no African-Americans in the United States Senate," said Burris. "Is it racism that is taking place? That's a question that someone may raise."

Whatever the dynamics, Burris had made a good impression on Reid. Asked later that afternoon if he was concerned that a Senator Burris might not be able to win reelection, the Majority Leader shrugged off the suggestion. "You should meet the guy," he said. "He's a pretty impressive guy."

Certainly, the way Burris' team got around the signature requirement showed a bit of political skill. White, who refused to sign Burris' certification papers, nevertheless signed paperwork certifying that he had filed a document registering that he had received the appointment from Blogojevich.

Good enough, argued Burris.

Good enough, said Senate Democrats, no doubt looking to put the matter to bed.

"The Secretary of the Senate has determined that the new credentials presented today on behalf of Mr. Burris now satisfy Senate Rules and validate his appointment to the vacant Illinois Senate seat," said Reid and Durbin in a joint statement Monday afternoon.

By that point, however, legal matters were overwhelming the politics. Several Constitutional scholars told the Huffington Post early after the Burris appointment was announced that the former Illinois attorney general was likely on the Senate track. He met all the requirements -- age, citizenship and residence - and had been appointed legally.

"Legal advice left Senate without a leg to stand on," said one Senate aide, though Reid spokesman Manley insists that the legal argument was in their favor and that the Senate can set additional requirements - such as state certification - for its members.

Burris now faces one final hurdle: the GOP. "Accordingly, barring objections from Senate Republicans, we expect Senator-designee Burris to be sworn in and formally seated later this week," said Durbin and Reid.

It doesn't look like Republicans will block him. "Well you know Americans are clearly tired of hearing about ethical issues in Washington," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Friday. "My colleagues, my Republican colleagues, I think to a person would prefer a fresh start that allows the people of Illinois to choose their new Senator, but candidly, if Mr. Burris presents the correct paperwork, he's going to be a Senator."

Burris, upon hearing the news, released a statement of gratitude for the "autograph" that made him a Senator.

"Secretary of State Jesse White, whom I have known for more than 30 years, is also owed a debt of gratitude," he said after thanking Reid and Durbin. "He also happens to be someone whose autograph I cherish."

Register To Vote