Senators To Meet, But Will Burris Be There?
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
So that's the transition in Baghdad. And there will also be a transition in the United States Senate next Tuesday, could get awkward when this new class of U.S. Senators is sworn in. That's because Roland Burris plans to be on hand. He was appointed this week to fill the senate seat left open when Barack Obama was elected president. The man who selected Burris, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, faces charges that he tried to sell that seat to highest bidder. As NPR's David Welna reports, the appointment of an African-American with unblemished record presents this Senate with a tangle of legal and political questions.
DAVID WELNA: Governor Blagojevich dropped a Chicago-sized political bombshell in appointing Roland Burris to Mr. Obama's senate seat, even if he tried to make it all about the man he'd chosen.
(Soundbite of announcement)
Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): This is about Roland Burris as a United States senator, not about the governor who makes the appointment.
WELNA: Senate Democratic leaders weren't buying it. This is not about Mr. Burris, they said in a statement, it is about the integrity of the governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat. Any Blagojevich appointee, they vowed, will not be seated by the Democratic caucus. But, as University of Richmond legal expert Carl Tobias points out, Blagojevich did have the power to appoint Burris to the vacant seat.
Professor CARL TOBIAS (Law, University of Richmond): That doesn't necessarily mean that the Senate will feel compelled to seat him. But, it does seem that, presently, he has the authority. He hasn't resigned. He has not been convicted of a crime, and he hasn't been impeached and convicted by the Illinois legislature.
Mr. KEN JONES (Chief Legal Counsel, Senate Rules Committee): The Senate is the determiner of who sits as a member of their body.
WELNA: That's Ken Jones, he was chief legal counsel to the Senate Rules Committee when it was last controlled by Republicans. Jones says the Senate is a body that can easily block the seating of a would-be senator.
Mr. JONES: It might not explicitly state that they have the ability to block a gubernatorial appointment on a vacant Senate seat. The ultimate rule in the Senate that really matters is something called the unanimous consent. And absent unanimous consent, one person, one Senator, can hold up just about anything in the Senate.
WELNA: Which is why associate senate historian Donald Richie says that Burris, instead of being sworn in, may well see his appointment being referred to the Senate Rules Committee.
Mr. DONALD RICHIE (Senate Historian): The Senate has tended to try to adjudicate matters. The Rules Committee spends months sometimes trying to figure out what really happened and who should be seated.
WELNA: And that could buy time allowing the Illinois legislature a chance to impeach Blagojevich and hand the appointment power to the state's lieutenant governor. Beyond the legal questions lies another more delicate issue. It's the fact that by refusing to seat Burris, the Senate would leave itself without a single African-American member. Burris, himself, suggested on CNN yesterday, that this would not look good.
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. ROLAND BURRIS (Former Comptroller and Attorney General, Illinois): I'm saying that a person of Roland Burris's qualifications, because of the governor's problems, wouldn't be seated? Is it racism that's taking place?
WELNA: But American University congressional expert James Thurber says such questions may be neutralized by President-elect Obama's statement Tuesday, rejecting Burris's appointment.
Dr. JAMES THURBER (Congressional Expert, American University): This is the first African-American president of the United States that held the seat, and he is saying do not seat him. I think that means a lot. He's using some political capital to do that, and I think that trumps the question of race.
WELNA: Still, Thurber expects the Burris issue to be a major distraction when the Senate convenes next week and possibly for weeks to come. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
INSKEEP: Roland Burris made his case last night when talking to Robert Siegel on NPR's All Things Considered. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of interview)
Mr. BURRIS: I have the qualifications and the abilities to serve in that great, august body. I will be seated.
ROBERT SIEGEL: But, in fact, Senators Reid and Durbin, the two most senior Democrats, have said the contrary, that they don't want to see you seated. It may be that...
Mr. BURRIS: Did anybody asked them why? They actually have nothing against Roland Burris. They also said that, isn't that correct? ..TEXT: SIEGEL: I think they did say that they were against seating you in the body, and I'm wondering whether you will litigate that, and if that happens, would you take them to court on it?
Mr. BURRIS: Well, if well, if - we'll take these one step at a time. We're pretty sure that we're going to negotiate this and work this out as (unintelligible) into understand what the legal rights are.
INSKEEP: That's Roland Burris, who says he is a U.S. Senator from Illinois. You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.