Senate rejects Burris, but law may be on his side

The would-be senator from Illinois, named by a tainted governor, vows to fight on.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Controversial Senate appointee Roland Burris of Illinois arrived at the Capitol Tuesday. Senate leaders rejected his credentials, and he vows a legal fight to claim the seat.
Susan Walsh/AP
New Senator? Roland Burris of Illinois was prevented from taking his seat on Tuesday.

He wasn’t sworn in with his class on Tuesday, but it’s looking more likely that Roland Burris will replace Barack Obama as the next junior senator from Illinois.

The Senate leadership has vowed to keep him out, and in Illinois, lawmakers and officials are fuming at the chutzpah of their governor, Rod Blagojevich, who faces criminal corruption charges and impeachment, in appointing a senator. Racial politics have added a new political wrinkle to the imbroglio.

But Mr. Burris, a former attorney general and comptroller in Illinois and a noted African-American politician, seems to face few legal hurdles that will stop him from eventually taking the office, though his credentials were rejected because the Illinois secretary of state had refused to sign the requisite paperwork.

“It seems pretty clear he’s entitled to be seated,” says Prof. Robert Bennett, at Northwestern University School of Law. A 1969 US Supreme Court ruling laid out the conditions in which Congress can refuse to seat a member, and the court reiterated them in a recent decision on term limits. Still, a few scenarios exist that could yet prevent Burris from holding the office for the next two years, says Professor Bennett.

While Burris’s senatorial status remains unclear, momentum is building among Illinois legislators against the man who selected him, Governor Blagojevich. By appointing Burris, “it may be that Blagojevich has speeded up the process of being kicked out of office,” Bennett says.

An Illinois House panel met Sunday to consider impeachment. Some say an impeachment vote could come this week – with a possible second vote next week after the new legislature convenes. The state Senate would then need to hold a trial, but the whole process could be over within weeks.

When it comes to Burris’s appointment, some say Blagojevich outsmarted the legislature. Lawmakers had considered calling for a special election to fill Obama’s seat, but backed off after Blagojevich’s lawyer assured them the governor was not planning to fill the vacancy. Democratic lawmakers were also concerned that voters might elect a Republican.

“They took the governor at his lawyer’s word that he would not do this,” says Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Champaign. “You have a guy who is completely running amok, and they handed him a live hand grenade,” he adds.

In appointing Burris, Blagojevich settled on someone with relatively high standing, especially in the African-American community. Burris was the first black man in Illinois elected to statewide office when he became comptroller in 1979.

The Senate appointment enhanced Blagojevich’s image among Illinois African-Americans, long the group that sees him most favorably. The move also injected racial politics into the ongoing political chess game.

On Sunday, Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois and numerous black ministers gave Burris a rousing send-off at the New Covenant Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side. At the event Congressman Rush called the Senate, in threatening to reject Burris, the “last bastion of plantation politics.”

Professor Mooney argues that charges of racist undertones in the Senate’s actions are misleading. “This whole thing is a sham, and it’s really one of the foulest things I’ve seen in politics in a foul political state,” Mooney says. Neither Rush nor Burris, he notes, supported Obama during his primary Senate race. But, he adds, the tactic might help shore up support for Blagojevich among some voters and make it more difficult for the Senate to reject an African-American appointee.

Some sort of momentum for a compromise solution seems to be building. Even Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who was initially adamant in his refusal to seat the nominee, said that “there’s always room to negotiate.” Burris plans to meet with Senator Reid on Wednesday.

The Senate has based its authority to turn Burris away on a clause in the Constitution stating that “Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members.” But legal experts say that claim was significantly weakened by the US Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling that the US House did not have the power to block the appointment of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a representative from New York. However, Bennett says there are at least a few possible scenarios that could keep Burris from taking office. The Senate Rules Committee could hold up Burris’s approval long enough for Blagojevich to be impeached, which might free Blagojevich’s successor to appoint someone else, though this scenario is still legally questionable. The Illinois legislature could also still call a special election that could displace Burris before he finishes the current term.

Burris kept his remarks simple on Tuesday but vowed to keep fighting.

“My name is Roland Burris, the junior senator from the state of Illinois,” he said. “I was advised that my credentials were not in order.”

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