Officers could bar Burris from Senate
Democratic leaders plan response if Blagojevich appointee tries to claim Obama's seat
By Mike Dorning and James Oliphant | Tribune Washington Bureau
January 1, 2009
WASHINGTON - Should Roland Burris show up Tuesday for duty in the Senate, armed police officers stand ready to bar him from the floor.
This cinematic showdown is among an elaborate set of contingencies that Democratic leaders are planning if, as expected, the Illinoisan shows up with newly elected senators pressing his claim that he is the legitimate replacement for President-elect Barack Obama after the disputed appointment of Burris by Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
Democratic leaders hope to avert such a standoff. And Burris, in an interview yesterday with the Chicago Tribune, said he hoped to claim the Senate seat without added drama.
"We're not going to create a scene in Washington," Burris said. "We hope it's negotiated out prior to my going to Washington."
Ironically, the scandal-plagued governor would be allowed onto the Senate floor, since sitting governors are allowed floor privileges. But Lucio Guerrero, Blagojevich's spokesman, said the governor had not decided whether to go to Washington.
With Democratic leaders vowing to bar anyone appointed by Blagojevich because of his alleged attempt to sell Obama's seat, as federal authorities charge, leaders hope to stall Burris with paperwork. Senate rules require that an incoming senator's selection be certified by the secretary of state for his home state, and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has declined to sign a certification of Blagojevich's appointment of Burris.
But Senate Democrats also have a follow-up plan: refusing to seat Burris until the Senate Rules Committee completes an investigation into whether the appointment process was tainted by corruption.
The plan is for the Senate investigation to extend longer than the Illinois impeachment process under way against Blagojevich, leaving open the possibility that a new governor would make a rival Senate appointment - enabling Democratic leaders to seat the new governor's choice.
Some legal experts say this strategy may offer Democrats their best course. They caution, however, that the current situation is largely without precedent, and that any number of factors - judicial intervention, political pressure and shifting public opinion - could alter the outcome.
The first battle in what could become a lengthy and complex legal process is shaping up in the Illinois Supreme Court. Burris filed a petition yesterday challenging White's refusal to sign the certification of his appointment through what is known as a mandamus action, in which a judge can compel a state official to do his prescribed duty.
"The secretary of state cannot veto an action by simply not singing the document," Burris said. "He doesn't have that authority. He must do his job."
If Burris prevails by Tuesday, this could allow him to present valid paperwork to the Senate, and perhaps give it one less basis for refusing to seat him. In this case, Senate guards might not bar him from entry, but leaders would not swear him in.
Upon presentation of a valid certificate of election or appointment, past practice in the Senate has been to grant a senator whose credentials are disputed office space and payroll for a staff, as well as floor privileges - but not a Senate seat - while the dispute is pending.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said leaders have not decided if they would follow that tradition. Other officials said senators are loath to break with custom, but permitting Burris any perquisites of office also has potential political drawbacks.
While the Senate Rules Committee conducts its investigation, Burris also could file suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, asking a judge to order the Senate to seat him.
That's what former Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. did in 1967 when the House attempted to bar the New York Democrat from taking his seat. Powell won two years later in the Supreme Court, which ruled that Congress did not have the power to fashion its own standards for admittance.