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As Burris Tries to Settle In, He Faces New Controversy

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

KANKAKEE, Ill. -- Roland W. Burris entered the Senate in an exceptional fashion, but he has worked hard to reshape his tenure into a traditional one.

In Washington, Burris (D-Ill.) has worked to blend in with the clubby Senate, chatting with colleagues on the floor between votes and frequently presiding over sessions in the chamber, as the most junior members are required to do. Back in Illinois last week and touring part of the state, he was greeted at a veterans hospital in Danville with a "Welcome Senator Burris" sign.

For all of that, though, Burris remains unable to shake how he got to the Senate in the first place.

The former Illinois attorney general found himself on the defensive again last week, after the release Tuesday of an FBI recording from last November in which he both pressed to be Barack Obama's replacement in the Senate and offered fundraising help to then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). One month later, Blagojevich appointed Burris to the Senate.

"We wanted the tapes to be released. We thought it would show Roland hadn't done anything out of the ordinary," said Delmarie Cobb, a political adviser to Burris. "It didn't turn out the way we hoped. The headlines are all that he promised to do something personally" to help Blagojevich.

More Questions

The controversy is crimping Burris's ability to tout the work he has been able to do in a job he long coveted. For his five-city tour of Illinois, Burris's office had scheduled private chats with local officials at each stop, followed by a news conference in which the senator could discuss what he learned.

The release of the FBI recording changed those plans. Instead, at each stop, Burris would talk to reporters about Illinois policy issues, then pull out his binder and read a statement in the hope of heading off questions on his connections to Blagojevich.

"Did I want to be appointed to the Senate seat? Yes, I did, I told everybody who would listen," Burris read. "Did I try to buy the Senate seat? Never. . . . Did I commit perjury? No. Have I stated the truth all along? . . . I did not lie to anyone about the events leading to my appointment."

The effort failed. Despite announcing he would take only one question on the subject after an event in Springfield, Burris, more prideful than self-disciplined, took five questions about his connections to Blagojevich, as his aides grimaced. After meeting with the mayor of Kankakee, Burris again found himself rejecting the suggestion that he had given shifting stories on the controversy.

He finally walked away, ignoring shouted questions about how he felt about some Illinois state representatives calling on him to resign.

In an interview, Burris dismissed any suggestion that the continuing controversy would affect his work.

"I'm going full steam ahead," Burris said. "I have nothing to hide. I have done nothing wrong."

'This Just Ices the Cake'

The political impact of the controversy remains a question mark. None of the stops on his tour was designed to put the senator in a large crowd of constituents, so the only people pressing him with questions were reporters. In Kankakee, a few African American supporters waited outside as he met with the mayor. Afterward, as Burris headed to his car, several praised him for his work in the Senate so far and implored him to pursue reelection.

"I hope he will run next year," said the Rev. William H. Copeland Jr., pastor emeritus of Morning Star, a Baptist church in Kankakee. "I have known him for years."

Burris has not said whether he will seek a full six-year term next year, but Democrats who have spoken to him say he wants to stay in the Senate. The odds against his election were stacked against him even before the recording was released.

"Even without this, he was a goner," said Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant, of the recording. "This just ices the cake."

Burris has little support from key political figures who might help him raise money or build support in Illinois or Washington, and he lacks a strong political base in the state. He has repeatedly lost Democratic primaries for statewide office.

His relations with Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D), one of the most influential figures in Illinois politics, remain contentious. Durbin expressed concerns about Burris earlier in the year, both because his new colleague had given conflicting accounts of his contacts with Blagojevich and because of the suggestion by some that Senate Democrats' reluctance to seat Burris, an African American, was racially motivated.

"It's not that Senator Durbin and Senator Burris have a bad relationship. Things are strained, and they just don't have a deep relationship," said Durbin's spokesman, Joe Shoemaker.

In the case of another somewhat controversial Senate appointee, Kirsten Gillibrand, party leaders persuaded other New York Democrats to step aside from potential primary challenges. But prominent Democrats in Washington are pushing Lisa Madigan, the popular Illinois attorney general, to run for the Senate, out of fear that Burris would lose a seat that otherwise would easily remain with their party.

'There's No Problem'

Burris met recently with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to discuss his political future. Burris would not say if either offered support.

Cobb said it was an "insult" that Democratic leaders were not behind Burris, given his incumbency. But she predicted he will win without the backing of party leaders, citing the example of two senators who held Burris's seat before him: Obama and Carol Moseley Braun.

"Neither Carol nor Barack had the party apparatus behind them, and they won," Cobb said. "Money and party help but are not necessarily criteria for winning this seat."

Burris said he will soon determine his political path. For now, though, he would rather discuss his five months in the Senate. He bragged of getting co-sponsors behind one of his first bills, which would increase oversight of stimulus dollars allotted to states.

He said he is becoming more effective now that he has a full-time staff, including a handful of holdovers from Obama's staff, and is building strong relationships with other senators. Democratic staffers say Burris has little impact on the Senate, but that's not uncommon for new members of the Senate, where seniority matters greatly.

"You talk to Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico or even Orrin Hatch from Utah; you talk to [Pat] Roberts from Kansas, [Mark] Pryor from Arkansas -- I have a great time with all of them. There's no problem," Burris said, ticking off a bipartisan roster of colleagues.

Senators on both sides of the aisle say Burris attends committee hearings and works diligently. Democrats point out that Burris has missed only one vote, an important number in the Senate, which needs every Democratic vote it can get to pass legislation. Burris is one of the most reliable Democratic votes in the chamber, backing the party position more than 95 percent of the time.

Burris remains as giddy about being in the Senate as he was when he was sworn in January. Having run unsuccessfully for governor, this appointment seems to have validated his long-held belief that he was destined to hold major statewide office. He recently started writing his memoirs, which he said tell the story of his rise from the town of Centralia.

"I love people, I love public service," he said. "Public service is my calling, and I've had a chance to get back into it. I want to do my best and become the best senator Illinois has ever had."

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