By Dana Milbank
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Here is the good news for D.C. residents: You have a new friend in the U.S. Senate.
Ready for the bad news? His name is Roland Burris.
The Democrat from Blagojevich, rejecting urgings from his Senate colleagues and home-state officials to resign, took to the Senate floor yesterday to demand voting rights for citizens in the nation's capital.
"Mr. President, I rise to [pause] support the District of Columbia [pause] House vote [pause] vote [pause, clearing of throat] rights act," he began. In his three-minute-and-nine-second speech, he went on to proclaim that "America is a model of democracy around the world."
Of course, Burris and his home state of Illinois have been a rather different sort of model in recent weeks, as the senator has come to revise his claims that he had nothing to do with the now-impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his pay-to-play schemes.
But Burris did not have time to ponder this irony. After his speech, he had to take his place in the presiding officer's chair on the Senate floor.
"Mr. President!" Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) called to Burris.
"Mr. President!" Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) addressed Burris.
Acting Senate President Burris played his parliamentary role with pizazz. "Without objection, so ordered! . . . The amendment is not agreed to. . . . The clerk will call the roll." The chamber went into a lengthy quorum call, and Burris spent the better part of an hour yawning, consulting his watch, gazing out at the empty chamber, scratching his temple and running his finger up and down the columns of a Senate membership list.
"I'm very upbeat," the senator announced as he made his way back to his office after a vote yesterday.
But isn't he frustrated that pretty much everybody wants him to quit? "I don't have time to be frustrated -- I'm running from meeting to meeting," he shot back. "I'm a senator, and I'm doing my job." With a parting "God bless you," he hopped onto a senators-only elevator.
Back home in Illinois, Burris has already inscribed his mausoleum with credentials such as "President of the National Association of State Comptrollers." But now he can chisel in new achievements:
-- Author of multiple and conflicting accounts about involvement in Blagojevich scandal.
-- U.S. senator for 33 days before becoming subject of Senate ethics probe.
His colleagues are making little effort to hide their disdain. "I told him that under the circumstances, I would resign," fellow Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, told reporters after meeting with Burris on Tuesday. "He said, 'I'm not going to resign.' "
Burris called the session with Durbin "a great discussion," then, to evade further questions, climbed over a dolly carrying trash and onto an elevator.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was no warmer than Durbin. His discussion on the Senate floor with Burris, as recounted later by Reid, went as follows:
Reid: How was your break?
Burris: Fine. How was yours?
The evidence would suggest, however, that Burris's President's Day break last week was somewhat short of "fine." His temporary chief of staff quit, and an Illinois state's attorney started an investigation after Burris admitted that he had spoken at least five times with Blagojevich associates and that he had tried to raise money for the governor while vying for the Senate appointment. But Burris retains a sense of righteous indignation. An Associated Press photographer overheard him on the House floor before President Obama's speech Tuesday telling Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who also wanted the Senate appointment: "I did nothing wrong, Jesse."
Burris entered the chamber for a vote yesterday with a jaunty step and a red silk handkerchief tucked nattily into his breast pocket. Nobody greeted him, so he struck up a conversation with a clerk, then cast his vote. He tried to talk to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who inched away and busied himself in a chat with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). After Burris injected himself into that discussion, the two other men broke away, leaving him alone. A couple of others smiled and passed by him quickly. Burris, alone, picked up some papers and began to walk from the chamber. He patted Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who looked but said nothing.
In the Capitol subway going back to his office, he tried to make small talk with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). "Great speech yesterday," Burris offered. Lautenberg agreed. "The market's up?" Burris inquired. Lautenberg wasn't sure.
But Burris is not one to be set back by shunning. "I'm giving a speech," he announced after parting company with Lautenberg. His office called the Senate press gallery to alert reporters.
Burris was soon on the floor making his plea for D.C. voting rights. "The residents of our capital city pay one of the highest tax rates in the nation but they do not have a single voting representative in either house of Congress," he said. Actually, the high tax rates are the District's, not the feds', but Burris was on a roll. "The foundation of our system of government is that all citizens -- all citizens -- are represented in the federal government," he said.
That's right. If a disgraced governor on his way to impeachment can send somebody to Congress, the District of Columbia should be able to do the same.