The Senate's Democratic leaders Monday afternoon did what they had vowed never to do: They agreed to seat disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's pick to serve out President-elect Barack Obama's unexpired term.
In a statement released shortly after 4 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, bowed to what was increasingly seen as inevitable and announced that Roland Burris, 71, a former Illinois comptroller and attorney general, would be sworn in as a senator sometime this week.
In a news conference, Burris thanked Reid, Durbin and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, referring to the latter as "someone whose autograph I cherish." Burris was barred from taking a Senate seat last week because of White's refusal to sign the appointment papers.
He added that the "most important reason I've fought to defend this appointment — [is that] I believe that Illinois people didn't deserve to be punished again" and be without full representation in Washington.
Obama, in a statement released by his transition team, said that he looks forward to working with Burris and the rest of the Senate "to rebuild our economy and meet the great challenges of our time."
Uncomfortable Standoff Ends
The leaders' initial hard-line position on Burris, the first African-American elected to statewide office in Illinois, has softened over time — and in the face of legal precedent that suggested they were not on firm footing.
Additional pressure came from some prominent African-Americans, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who questioned why a man they viewed as qualified was prevented from joining the country's most exclusive club. Obama, who also initially opposed any Blagojevich appointment, had recently eased his stance and said he would work with Burris if the Senate seated him.
Before resigning his seat after winning the presidency, Obama was the only African-American serving in the Senate.
Republican National Committee Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan said in a statement that in agreeing to seat Burris, "Senate Democrats have gone back on their word."
"Democrats had every opportunity to strip Gov. Blagojevich of his power to appoint a U.S. Senator," Duncan said. "But ultimately they accepted a Blagojevich appointee rather than risk losing a Senate seat in a special election."
The Senate leaders had long claimed that the Burris appointment was tainted because it came from Blagojevich; the Democratic governor faces federal charges that he tried to sell Obama's seat, and he is now the subject of impeachment proceedings in Illinois.
But Monday, after a 45-minute meeting with Burris' lawyers, Reid and Durbin said they informed Burris that "he is now the senator-designate from Illinois, and, as such, will be accorded all the rights and privileges of a senator-elect."
When asked about whether his appointment was tainted, Burris said, "The governor has carried out his constitutional duties."
Burris wrapped up his prepared comments by saying, to the people in Illinois disheartened by the governor's scandal, "It's always the darkest before dawn. I believe the dawn is near, and brighter days are ahead for Illinois."
Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, said the timing of Burris' swearing-in was not yet arranged, though the leadership office is working with the senator-in-waiting and with Vice President Dick Cheney, who will administer the oath of office.
The decision appears to end what had become an embarrassing sideshow that distracted from the Democrats' hoped-for triumphal return to Congress last week with strong majorities in the Senate, the House and an incoming new Democratic president.
The nadir of the saga occurred Jan. 6, when, on the rainy opening day of a new term, Burris was prevented from entering the Senate because the Illinois secretary of state had refused to sign the papers certifying his appointment. Burris and his lawyers exited the Capitol, followed by a growing clutch of reporters and photographers.
Days later, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the secretary of state's signature was not required on Burris' Senate certification; but even then, Reid and Durbin insisted that Senate tradition going back to 1884 required the signature and, as Durbin said last week, "has never, ever been waived."
A Pivotal Legal Precedent
Monday, the leaders said that they had outlined to Burris that "a path needed to be followed that respects the rules of the Senate. We committed to Mr. Burris that once those requirements were satisfied, we would be able to proceed."
"We are pleased that everything is now in order," Reid and Durbin said.
Manley characterized as "ridiculous" any suggestion that the developments undermined Reid's authority or represented a capitulation.
In the end, Burris' most persuasive argument may have been a 1969 Supreme Court decision requiring that the House and the Senate seat any duly elected or appointed member who met constitutional age, citizenship and residency requirements for the office.
Legal scholars said it would be difficult for Senate leaders to make a case that their reservations about Blagojevich justified barring Burris from the Senate. And lacking any evidence of quid pro quo in the Burris appointment, it would have been just about impossible for leaders to prevent Burris from taking his seat, experts say.
The leaders' decision can also be viewed as pragmatic: In addition to ending the soap opera — hugely enjoyed by their Republican colleagues — they'll have one more Democratic vote in the Senate, bringing their majority to 58 votes.
But the Democrats still have one Senate seating controversy to go: Leaders have, so far, declined to seat Minnesota Sen.-elect Al Franken, a Democrat whose whisker-close win is being challenged by incumbent GOP Sen. Norm Coleman.
Franken on Monday requested that state officials, pending Coleman's court challenge, authorize him to be seated. And he asked top state officials, including Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to sign an election certificate certifying his win — an unlikely prospect.