WASHINGTON — Roland Burris said today he should be able to join the Senate “very shortly,” after talking to newly supportive Democratic leaders and working on lingering legal obstacles.
Talking to reporters on the second day of a Washington power odyssey that would intimidate many, the 71-year-old Burris declared himself happy and said he was pleased with his meeting with Sens. Harry Reid and Dick Durbin.
“My whole interest in this experience is to be prepared” to lead Illinois, Burris said, “and very shortly I will have the opportunity to do that.”
Burris’ legal issues include a pending decision by a court in his home state on whether Secretary of State Jesse White’s signature is required on his certification papers and his appearance Thursday before a committee considering the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who appointed him to take the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
Senate leaders hoped that Burris would be asked under oath Thursday whether he promised Blagojevich anything in exchange for the appointment to Obama’s seat. Burris offered his assurances at a news conference today that he wasn’t involved in any such “pay to play.”
For his part, Obama stood above the fray, telling his own news conference that the decision on whether to allow Burris to join the Senate is a decision for Senate leaders. He did say that he knew him, liked him and would be happy to work with him if he is seated.
Senate leaders were under significant pressure to resolve the Burris matter quickly before its racial and political themes further overshadowed the 111th Congress and its consideration of a stimulus bill that could cost $1 trillion.
The Congressional Black Caucus voted unanimously today to support seating Burris. Chairwoman Barbara Lee of California said the 41-member caucus plans to send a letter to Senate Democratic leaders calling for Burris to be seated immediately.
Meanwhile, Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, sued the Senate today, saying the refusal to seat Burris is unconstitutional.
“This is a situation where we have a senator who has now missed out on his first day,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “It’s only fair that he be sworn in immediately. This is a no-brainer.”
Senate leaders weren’t quite ready to do that, but they were pivoting abruptly from their posture a day earlier that Burris lacks the proper paperwork to be seated and that the taint of Blagojevich’s corruption charges would strip him or anyone the governor appoints, of credibility.
Instead of meeting the press out in the rain, this time Reid, D-Nev. and Durbin, invited him into the heart of the Senate’s power center — and the press to photograph the three, Burris in the middle, smiling and chit chatting.
Later, Reid and Durbin reported that they thought highly of Burris and that they were merely waiting for procedural matters to be resolved before he could be seated.
“We don’t have a problem with him as an individual,” Reid said of Burris.
One matter holding up Burris seating, he and Durbin said, was a ruling by the state supreme court expected this week on whether White is legally required to sign Burris’ letter of appointment. White has taken the position that Blagojevich, accused of seeking to benefit financially from filling Obama’s seat, did not have legal authority to make the appointment.
Additionally, Senate Democrats want sworn testimony that Burris did not promise Blagojevich anything in exchange for the appointment – sort of political insurance in case other news came out after his seating in the Senate.
Then, Reid said, the Senate will almost certainly hold a vote on whether to seat Burris.
The whole process, Senate officials predicted, might take weeks.
But under pressure today, Senate Democrats began the process of retreating from their previous hard line against seating Burris.
Knowledgeable Senate officials said the visual embrace of Burris was meant to show the Democrats’ acceptance of his personal and professional qualifications, reflecting the expectation among Senate Democrats and Republicans that Burris eventually would be seated.
Burris was on the second day of a bizarre introduction to Capitol Hill. He stood in the rain Tuesday to say he was being denied the seat, and then gave a much more upbeat assessment of prospects today after his meeting with Reid and Durbin.
Burris was asked about the obviously warmer reception he got the second time around.
“I don’t know what pressure they were under, but they, I guess they have to keep the integrity of the Senate,” he said. “And they did not want to rush into anything and make a decision where they have to then be trying to reverse that. And that would even be worse.”
Asked if he, Reid and Durbin discussed any conditions under which he could be seated, he said that subject “wasn’t even on their radar screen.”
When a reporter asked whether Burris had any “pay to play” discussions with Blagojevich or his office, Burris joked that couldn’t have happened — “because I don’t have no money.”
Associated Press Laurie Kellman and Ben Evans contributed to this report.