Democratic Senators Yield to Burris

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Under these circumstances, 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."

-- Last week's statement on Roland Burris by Democratic Senate leaders.

"He obviously is a very engaging, extremely nice man. He presents himself very well. He's very proud of his family. He's got two Ph.D.s and two law degrees, and he talked about how proud he was having those degrees."

-- Yesterday's statement on Roland Burris by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

There were more caves in Washington yesterday than in the mountains of Afghanistan.

A week ago, Senate Democrats, with Shermanesque certainty and the backing of President-elect Barack Obama, said that Rod Blagojevich's Senate appointee would not be seated in the chamber -- no way, no how. "It will ultimately not stand," they vowed. Yesterday, they executed a near-perfect climb down, announcing that they would be happy to have Burris in the Senate after clearing up a couple of minor technicalities -- "a pretty easy hurdle to get over," as Reid put it.

Score one for the Illinois governor, who, on his way to likely impeachment and possibly the slammer, managed to outwit the leadership of his party.

While Reid spent two news conferences trying to explain that he had not been "outmaneuvered" by a man caught on tape allegedly trying to sell a Senate seat, an elated Burris booked a room in the Hyatt on Capitol Hill to hold a celebration. He hopped onto the stage and paused to look around the room, grinning, before he spoke. "My whole interest in this experience has been to be prepared, Roland, to represent my great state," he said, addressing himself aloud. "And very shortly, I will have the opportunity to do that as a junior senator from the fifth-largest state in this great country of ours. Isn't it great?"

He disclosed that he had already received a congratulatory phone call from Jimmy Carter. And, like any victorious pol, he singled out a supporter in the room: "Dick Barber, stand up! He's from Somerset, New Jersey!"

Blagojevich's triumph over Democratic leaders in Washington has a lot to do with his deft playing of the race card. Even as they backed down yesterday, Senate Democratic leaders anxiously explained that their former opposition to Burris had nothing to do with his skin color.

"Roland Burris, one of the first things he said to us, 'Hey, this is nothing that's racial, I understand that,' " Reid said, without being prompted by a questioner.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), also unbidden, said that Burris had assured them that they "have excellent records when it comes to racial relations." Durbin saw fit to add that a leading critic of the appointment, the Illinois secretary of state, is black.

The defensiveness only underscored how accusations of racism had unsettled Senate Democrats. Rep. Bobby Rush (Ill.) warned that "I don't think that anyone -- any U.S. senator who's sitting in the Senate right now -- wants to go on record to deny one African American for being seated." He likened the senators to Bull Connor and George Wallace.

"I cannot control my supporters," Burris demurred. Neither could he control the Congressional Black Caucus, which voted unanimously yesterday to support him and said it would send Reid a letter.

Any last trace of resistance to Burris vanished yesterday morning, when Obama, who last week agreed with the decision to exclude the senator-designate, dropped his opposition.

Reid, facing reporters after his meeting with Burris, had only happy thoughts about his new friend. His career was "extremely interesting." Their talk was "very enlightening." He "appears to be candid and forthright." He's not "trying to hide anything."

"We've always been friends and I've always respected him," Durbin added. "I've known him for such a long time," he repeated. "We are friends and on a first-name basis."

After rejecting Burris's credentials and sending him out into the rain on Tuesday as new senators were being sworn in, Senate officials ushered him to his meeting yesterday through the Senate subway -- just like a senator. They escorted him out through the carriage entrance -- just like a senator. This left Burris favorably disposed toward his hosts when he took the stage at the Hyatt. Durbin was his "good friend and fellow colleague." The irascible Reid was "a very warm and charming gentleman."

What explains the leaders' turnaround? "You'd have to ask them," Burris replied. "They were very warm. They were very charming."

Is he worried about what might come out about him in the Blagojevich investigations? "There was certainly no pay-to-play involved, because I don't have no money."

Did they extract any commitment from Burris not to run for election in 2010? "They weren't talking any conditions."

So will he be a candidate in 2010? Burris hedged. "Let me get my Senate legs under me and get in and raise some money to pay for all this stuff we've been doing and figure out that once we get in and get settled and learn where the bathrooms are," he proposed.

Raising money and being coy about his political future: Maybe this guy has the makings of a senator, after all.

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