Burris: 'I'm Here To Take My Seat'

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Illinois U.S. Senate appointee Roland Burris faces a battle today in Washington, D.C., as he attempts to sign in as the replacement for President-elect Barack Obama. But the cloud hanging over Burris' appointer, embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, could topple his attempts. Rep. Danny K. Davis, a Chicago Democrat who was initially tapped as Obama's replacement, and NPR's Political Editor Ken Rudin discuss a potentially dramatic day on Capitol Hill.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, President-elect Barack Obama is back in Washington and made it clear his first order of business is the economy. But we want to ask what's happened with the federal bailout money that's already been handed out. We'll talk with our money coach about that in just a few minutes.

But first, Congress is also back to work. The members of the 111th session of Congress will be sworn in today, but there's uncertainty over two unresolved Senate seats. In Minnesota, comedian Al Franken, a Democrat, won a week-long recount and declared victory in the race, but his Republican opponent says he will challenge the result in court.

And in Illinois, the man tapped to fill Barack Obama's vacant seat came to Washington to claim that seat. Roland Burris, the former Illinois attorney general, was appointed by embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich last week, but opponents say the appointment is tainted because the governor is under federal investigation for corruption charges for trying to essentially auction off the seat.

But Burris and some supporters say that Mr. Burris has never been accused of any impropriety, and the state citizens shouldn't have to do without representation because of the allegations against Blagojevich.

We're going to talk about all this with Danny K. Davis. He's a member of Congress representing Illinois's seventh district, and we were able to catch up with him as he made his way to the Capitol to be sworn in to begin serving his 7th term. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

Representative DANNY DAVIS (Democrat, Illinois): Well, thank you. It's indeed a pleasure.

MARTIN: And you're about to be sworn in to your seventh term in Congress. Is it still exciting?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, it is still exciting. It is still exhilarating, and it is something that you look forward to.

MARTIN: It's to my understanding that Governor Blagojevich initially offered the seat to you. Is that correct?

Rep. DAVIS: That is correct, but I decided that because of the uncertainty and because of the protracted fight and since I'm already engaged in a number of things that take up my time, that deal would - what I call substantive issues, like finding solutions to the homeless problem or helping ex-offenders reintegrate back into society and trying to find out why so many kids don't go to school and drop out so early. I decided I best spend my time working on those issues as opposed to defending why the governor appointed me.

MARTIN: It's been reported that you recommended that the governor tap Roland Burris for the seat. Is that true?

Rep. DAVIS: That is true.

MARTIN: Why not recommend that he either resign or that he go forward with a special election as the Illinois assembly was initially inclined to do?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, I don't think that he was going to resign. I think he'd already dug in and decided that he was the governor, and that he had every legal right to make this decision, and I think that he has every legal right to make the decision, and he has done so.

And he has made it for an individual who has impeccable credentials - 20 years of solid experience as a statewide elected official, never any hint of impropriety or scandal. So he couldn't have come up with a better choice for the situation.

MARTIN: But can I press you on this question of a special election?

Rep. DAVIS: Sure.

MARTIN: And why would not a special election have been the fairest way to resolve this matter, so that - let the voters decide?

Rep. DAVIS: I don't know what fair is? The law already exists. The question of fairness is always debatable. Is it fair for birds to eat worms? If you ask a bird, you get one answer. If you ask the worm, you get another one. And so the law exists.

If the legislature decided to change the law, then it's their prerogative to do so. But the leaders in Illinois have decided up to this point that a special election would just simply be too costly at the moment, especially given the fact that state finances like they are all over the country are having difficulty, and they just decided that that was not the most prudent thing to do.

MARTIN: Forgive me for pressing this point. The other argument, though, is that the real issue is political - is that there was a feeling on the part of Democratic leaders in Springfield that the seat might go to a Republican because of the taint around Blagojevich and all of this, and so the argument that they are making is that the real reason that the state government leaders didn't want a special election is that they thought a Republican might win?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, there are always political considerations in almost any decision that gets made. I think that's why it's called politics. And so there's certainly nothing wrong with protecting your political position.

You see, I happen to believe that it's in the best interest of the state of Illinois and of the citizens of Illinois that a Democrat continue to hold that seat which Democrats and other people voted to elect a Democrat to fill. And so I think people have already indicated that they wanted a Democrat to fill the seat, and that's why the Democratic party in a sense - or the Democratic governor gets an opportunity to appoint a replacement for President-elect Barack Obama.

MARTIN: And what about the racial aspect of it? Do you also think it important that the seat be filled by an African-American, since Barack Obama is an African-American, and there are currently no other African-Americans serving in the Senate? Do you think that matters, too?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, I think all of that matters, but I think the real deal is who best fits the description of an individual to fill that vacancy at the moment. A qualified African-American? A qualified non-African-American, qualified Latino?

It's just that in appointing or selecting Roland Burris that the governor did two things. One, he selected a very qualified individual no matter what race or ethnic group he may have come from, and, of course, Roland Burris is, in fact, an African-American. And so, at the moment, that's the best possible selection that he could have made.

MARTIN: What do you think should happen now, recognizing that as a member of the House you don't really have a dog in the fight in the sense of what the Senate does, although, of course, you have an interest as a citizen of Illinois and a representative of Illinois. What do you think Harry Reid should do, the Senate majority leader?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, I think my interest - I think my interest and the interest of the citizens of Illinois would be best served should the Senate go ahead and confirm the appointment of Roland Burris to fill the vacancy.

And then, of course, the people in Illinois will decide what they're going to do about the problems the governor is facing, you know. Hearings are under way relative to impeachment. Of course, the indictment proceedings are also under way, and the state of Illinois can take care of those problems related to the governor. But I think the United States Senate should take care of the issue of confirming Roland Burris, and I think that's what they really should do today.

MARTIN: Finally, congressman, as I mentioned, we've caught up with you on you way to be sworn in, and we appreciate you taking the time. What's your top priority as you get back to work?

Rep. DAVIS: Well, I think that we obviously have to find a solution to some of the economic problems facing our country. We are in serious economic difficulty.We've got to be able to create jobs and work opportunities, and I think the proposed infrastructure development plan, the stimulus that President-elect Obama's, is one of the best ways of doing that.

MARTIN: Danny K. Davis is a member of Congress. He is a Democrat. He represents the seventh district of Illinois. He was kind enough to join us on the phone as he's on his way to be sworn in to begin his seventh term serving in the House of Representatives. Congressman Davis, thank you so much for speaking with us, and happy New Year to you.

Rep. DAVIS: Thank you, and it's been my pleasure.

MARTIN: We're going to go now to NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin, to pick up the rest of the story. He's here with me in the studio. Welcome back. Happy New Year to you also.

KEN RUDIN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: You just heard Danny Davis talk about what he thinks should happen. Now, this obviously is embarrassing for the Democrats to start the session with this cloud. What do you think Harry Reid is going to do?

RUDIN: Well, you see, he hasn't changed his mind. He still says that until there's two signatures on Roland Burris's appointment - of the governor and the secretary of state, Jesse White, then he gets appointed. And then he gets a credential. But Jesse White, the Illinois secretary of state, has refused to sign it because of the taint surrounding Rod Blagojevich.

But other people are trying to say that when Roland Burris shows up at noon today to try to present his credentials, it's almost like George Wallace standing in front of the court house door, you know, back in Alabama because it's just according to the state law the governor has the right to appoint whomever he chooses, and the governor has picked Roland Burris. So there may be a confrontation. Burris's says he will not want one. The Democrats obviously don't want one, but it will be interesting to see what happens.

MARTIN: You said before that you think this is going to end up in court no matter what.

RUDIN: Well, it has to - it has to because the question is, you know, Blagojevich still named a specials date for the Rahm Emmanuel congressional seat, and nobody questioned that. So why are they questioning this? I mean, do you pick and choose which of Blagojevich's actions you like? So I think that's kind of the argument that the Burris camp is going to fight.

MARTIN: Speaking of court, there's another disputed Senate seat. Democrat Al Franken, a former entertainer turned politician, was declared the winner of his race with Republican incumbent Norm Coleman after a recount that dragged on for weeks. But now, Republicans say that he shouldn't be seated, and they're going to go to court. On what grounds?

RUDIN: Well, he wasn't declared the winner yet. He wasn't certified the winner yet. He leads by 225 votes. All the votes have been counted. Norm Coleman, who basically was supposed to have won this race - he thought he won the race - on November 4th, he had a sizable lead. Now, he's down by 225. He says there are still some hundred - 600 - some 600 absentee ballots that have yet to be counted.

Also, he's contending that there are at least 100 votes that have been counted twice. He's going to the courts to try to make his case, but it seems like the numbers have stopped against him even if he gets some kind of a second hearing. The 225 vote lead is the largest that Al Franken has had since the counting began on November 4th.

MARTIN: So what court next? What court do they appeal to? Is this a federal issue or…

RUDIN: Well, if it's the state, the Supreme Court will refuse to hear because there have been some close elections in Minnesota history in the past where they have gone to the state Supreme Court with the option of going to a federal court. But sounds like where Franken and the Republicans - and we heard from John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas, that they want to fight as long as they can. They will fight whatever ways they can, and that could be a federal court.

MARTIN: And finally, Bill Richardson, New Mexico's governor, withdrew from consideration to serve as commerce secretary in the Obama administration. Now, when President-elect Obama originally chose him, there had been some concern about the lack of Latinos in important cabinet positions. Is that - does that argument still go for them? Who's to blame here? Was this a vetting problem, or do you think that Bill Richardson was less than candid about the political problems he would have getting confirmation?

RUDIN: Well I think everybody knew that there was a pay-for-play investigation going on in New Mexico. Richardson insists that he told the Obama vetting team about this problem, but I think, even though Rod Blagojevich's name did not come up in the Richardson withdrawal, what happened in Illinois got so ugly that the Obama people feared that any taint from New Mexico could hurt them even further, and that's why they were glad to cut him lose.

MARTIN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. And you can read his blog, Political Junkie, at npr.org at anytime. Thanks again, Ken.

RUDIN: Thanks, Michel.

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