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Senate remains unsettled at the start

WASHINGTON — Well, that was awkward.

The man appointed to replace President-elect Obama in the U.S. Senate arrived Tuesday morning at the Capitol. He was warmly welcomed, then turned back into the cold, persistent rain.

"I presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate and I was advised that my credentials were not in order, and I would not be accepted, and I will not be seated, and I will not be permitted on the floor," Roland Burris, the former Illinois attorney general and comptroller, told a horde of soggy reporters.

"I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation. I will now consult with my attorneys, and we will determine what our next step will be."

Elections can be messy and it's not that unusual to find a couple of House or Senate races still undecided come opening day.

The new senator from Minnesota wasn't sworn in Tuesday either.

After a grueling recount, the state canvassing board named Democrat Al Franken the winner by 225 votes, but Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has filed a legal challenge.

But Burris faces troubles of a different sort. He was duly appointed to complete the last two years of Obama's Senate term by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a fellow Democrat who faces indictment for allegedly trying to sell the seat to the highest bidder.

Burris hasn't been implicated, and no one has suggested he offered Blagojevich anything other than his gratitude. But he's fruit from a poison tree at a time when the incoming Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress dearly want to start with a clean slate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and even Obama himself, had sworn that anyone appointed by Blagojevich would be, politically speaking, dead to them. Reid also has been given a bit of cover: Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has refused to sign and stamp Burris' Certificate of Appointment, citing the cloud surrounding Blagojevich.

Talking tough often is easier than acting tough. Burris, like Obama, is black, and as of today there's not a single African-American in the Senate. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have told Reid that Burris deserves the job. Its leaders may meet to discuss the case today.

Democrats also hope to avoid holding a special election to fill Obama's seat to ensure they keep it. If Burris and Franken are sworn in, Democrats would fall one seat shy of the 60 votes need to bust Republican filibusters.

Republicans, meanwhile, are generally content to stand back and let the Democrats wrestle with the distraction.

"A circular firing squad," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. "Why would I want to get in the middle of that?"

Reid, who has softened his tone in recent days, has scheduled a meeting with Burris for this morning. In his speech on the Senate floor opening the new session Tuesday, Reid said Burris was "welcomed" by Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer — an old friend of Burris' from Chicago — and had a "gracious meeting" with the Senate secretary and the parliamentarian.

"A court case in Illinois is pending to determine whether the secretary of state … is obligated to sign the certification," Reid explained. "We are awaiting that court decision. If Mr. Burris takes possession of valid credentials, the United States Senate will proceed in a manner that is respectful to Mr. Burris while ensuring that there is no cloud of doubt over the appointment to fill this seat."

For his part, Burris' decision to be insistent but not insolent seems to be serving him well.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., suggested this was less of a showdown than a speed bump.

"At the end of the day, Senate leaders will work this out," he said.

Senate remains unsettled at the start 01/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 8:54am]
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