Is it time for Burris to go?

Calls grow for him to resign as a perjury probe proceeds.

Seth Perlman/AP
At Illinois capitol: Last week, state Rep. Jack Franks (D) asked the US Senate to open an ethics review of Senator Burris.
Gerald Herbert/AP/file
Sen. Roland Burris

The drumbeat is getting louder for Sen. Roland Burris (D) of Illinois to resign.

On Friday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) added his voice to those who say too many questions have been raised about the circumstances that led to Senator Burris’s appointment for him to remain in office. Even the White House sent a warning, with press secretary Robert Gibbs saying Burris should “take some time over the weekend” to better explain himself and “think of what lays in his future.”

So far, Burris, whom prosecutors in Illinois are investigating for perjury, has held firm, repeating that he has done nothing wrong and refusing to take questions from reporters.

But the ballooning scandal, and the senator’s often-contradictory remarks as he has sought to explain his appointment and the contacts he had with former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) before Mr. Blagojevich appointed him, has darkened the cloud hanging over Illinois. It has also extended what Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois called in a Sun-Times interview the “Blagojevich burlesque.”

“I would ask my good friend, Sen. Roland Burris, to put the interests of the people of Illinois first and foremost, ahead of his own, and step aside,” Governor Quinn said in a news conference Friday, in the strongest call yet for Burris to resign. He also called on the Illinois legislature to pass a law setting the terms for a special election allowing voters to select a senator.

In another sign of fading support for Burris, his chief of staff – detailed to him by Senate majority leader Harry Reid – resigned on Friday, returning to his former post as a senior adviser in Senator Reid’s office.

The current scandal stems from unfolding revelations that Burris had more contact with Blagojevich’s staff about the appointment than he had previously acknowledged in his sworn testimony to Illinois lawmakers.

Blagojevich, who was removed from office last month, has been charged with corruption, including allegations that he sought to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. He stunned Illinois voters by appointing Burris after his arrest, but Burris assured the Illinois legislature and others that he had done nothing to curry favor in return for the appointment and had had only one conversation with a Blagojevich official about the Senate seat.

Over the past week, however, new revelations and an affidavit from Burris have shown that, in fact, Burris had spoken with others in the governor’s office, including Blagojevich’s brother, who called him three times to ask for help with fundraising. Burris later acknowledged that he attempted to raise money, though he was unsuccessful.

At this point, he faces a perjury probe in Illinois and an inquiry by the Senate Ethics Committee, but it’s far from certain either mechanism will force him from office. Perjury is notoriously difficult to prove, and the Senate is not known for ousting members.

“Expulsion is the remotest possibility, though it’s certainly an option the Senate has,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, noting that Senate Democrats are unlikely to want to expel the lone African-American in their midst.

“They’re desperate that he jump, because they don’t want to push him over the side,” Professor Baker says. “If I were the majority leader, I would simply arrange for colleagues to visit him and tell him that he would be totally ineffective as a senator, that his influence is nil and will not get greater, and that the better part of valor for him would be to resign.”
Even Burris’s support in the African-American community, which helped him get seated over earlier objections from other senators, has been waning in the past week. The Congressional Black Caucus has been largely silent – a stark contrast to their vocal support of Burris before – and the Associated Press reports that Chicago ministers who earlier supported him were preparing to ask him to resign.

But Burris has been tenacious and may stay that way. “Anyone else would have already been out the door. But resigning would be such a blow to his pride and his self-image that I think it’s less than 50-50 that he’ll resign,” says Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

Even if Illinois lawmakers pass a special-election bill, which looks increasingly likely, it’s doubtful they could apply it retroactively, without Burris stepping down.

“Burris might be figuring that if he holds on long enough,” he can ride it out, says John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. That’s what happened, he notes, with Larry Craig, the Republican senator from Idaho who seemed on the point of resigning when he was charged with lewd conduct in an airport restroom two years ago, but who hung on to finish his term.

Still, he adds, “the case of Larry Craig arguably involved a misdemeanor in his private life, and this involves the very circumstances of Burris’s selection. When the word perjury is being batted about, that makes it serious.”

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