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Dems Drop Opposition To Burris In Senate


Last week Roland Burris, chosen by embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to fill Barack Obama's senate seat, was turned away. This week he'll get a hearty welcome as the junior senator from Illinois. NPR's David Welna joins us to discuss the about-face by Democratic leaders. And David, quite a turnaround. What happened to the Democrats on this issue?

DAVID WELNA: Well, Melissa, I think something that everyone knew was going to happen and had to happen finally did happen because all those involved in this whole embarrassing and hugely distracting episode finally found some way to save face. Democratic leaders had raised questions earlier about whether this appointment was tainted since Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested on charges of trying to sell this Senate seat. Burris settled that one by testifying last week before an impeachment panel in Illinois saying there was no deal.

An even bigger issue, at least here in the Senate, was that Burris did not have the signature of Illinois' secretary of state on his certificate of appointment to the Senate. It only had Blagojevich's signature, since the secretary of state had refused to sign anything the governor signs. So today, Burris' lawyer showed up here at the capital, went into the secretary of the Senate with what seems to be a Solomonic solution. And Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat and the senior senator from Illinois told me, it was a bit like Illinois sending the Senate a 10-dollar bill instead of two five-dollar bills.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Instead of one piece of paper with the signatures of the governor and secretary of state, which is the normal document filed by everyone elected and appointed, we received today two pieces of paper - one with the signature of the governor, Rod Blagojevich, and the second with the signature and seal of the secretary of state saying the other document is authentic and complies with Illinois law.

BLOCK: So maybe two fives instead of a 10.

WELNA: That's right, yes.

BLOCK: Well, let's rework this, go - work backwards here. About two weeks ago, the majority leader in the Senate, Democrat Harry Reid, basically threw down the gauntlet and said, look, Governor Blagojevich, if you send us an appointee, forget it. We're not going to seat him. And now, here we are, and Roland Burris will be the junior senator from Illinois. What happened?

WELNA: Well, and then Burris showed up here last Tuesday, the day new senators were being sworn in. He was told by the secretary of the Senate his papers were not in order, and he was quickly escorted out of the Capitol. and he proceeded to hold a news conference outside in driving cold rain. He vowed he'd be back, and he did return the next day and met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Durbin. And by then, another Senate Democrat, California's Dianne Feinstein, was publicly demanding that Burris be seated.

Then Burris testified in Springfield and the Congressional Black Caucus unanimously endorsed seating him. And it had become pretty clear that Senate Democrats were no longer going to stand in the way of this appointment. They simply had to find a way to walk back their earlier categorical statements that Burris would not be seated.

BLOCK: And what happens now with the Senator-designate Roland Burris?

WELNA: Well, he will come to the Capitol and be welcomed this time as a senator-designate, which means he can go on the Senate floor but not vote yet. And because Senate Democrats have decided to drop earlier plans to have his appointment reviewed by the Rules Committee, it now appears he may be sworn in before the full Senate as soon as this Thursday. Now, that's assuming of course that nobody objects to his being sworn in.

And Senate Republicans have given no sign that they intend to block Burris' seating. You know, they've just been enjoying seeing the new big Democratic majority in the Senate spend its first week completely tied up in knots over the Burris imbroglio. So if all this proceeds as planned, Burris will have his wish fulfilled to be sworn in before the man he is replacing in the Senate, Barack Obama, is himself sworn in as president next Tuesday.

BLOCK: And briefly, David, any broader takeaway lesson here for Democratic leaders?

WELNA: Well, I think the biggest lesson here may be that when the Senate has only one black member and that member, Barack Obama, resigns, and the governor of his state duly appoints another black man to take his place, you risk alienating a lot of your own constituency and to some even appearing racist by standing in the way of that appointment. This really was a checkmate by Governor Blagojevich. He left those Senate Democratic leaders no other move on this political chessboard than to seat Roland Burris.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's David Welna, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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