WASHINGTON — After days of distracting controversy -- and a quiet request from President-elect Barack Obama -- Senate Democrats opened a path Wednesday toward ushering Roland Burris into the seat vacated by Obama.
A top Senate Democratic source said Obama's concerns were among several factors that resulted in an about-face by Senate leaders, who had vowed to reject Burris or anyone else appointed by disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
Obama told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and others this week "that if Burris had legal standing -- and it appears he has -- he should be seated as quickly as possible," a top Obama source said. Previously, Obama had sided with those who opposed the appointment.
Blagojevich faces federal corruption charges -- including that he tried to sell the Senate seat.
Burris, a Democrat, arrived Tuesday on Capitol Hill, media horde in tow, and was turned away when he tried to claim the seat. That produced television images of a distinguished 71-year-old black man being turned out of the U.S. Capitol into the rain.
The former attorney general of Illinois received a more genteel reception Wednesday, meeting with Reid and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant Senate majority leader. They invited camera crews to film the beginning of their meeting as the three chatted.
Reid emerged from their 45-minute discussion to praise Burris as "candid and forthright." The majority leader outlined a process through which Burris could join the Senate, stressing the importance of Burris' testimony today to the Illinois panel investigating whether Blagojevich should be impeached.
"He's going to go answer any other questions they might have," Reid said. "He's not trying to avoid any responsibility and [not] trying to hide anything. Once that's done, we'll be in a different position and see what we are going to do."
Reid said the Senate Rules Committee probably would examine Burris' appointment to ensure that the circumstances are "transparent" in light of Blagojevich's arrest.
Reid also said that Burris must obtain documents complying with Senate rules. Initially, the Senate rejected Burris' appointment papers on the grounds that they were not co-signed by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, as required by state law. Reid said he expects Illinois courts to act "pretty soon" on Burris' lawsuit, which seeks to compel White to sign.
Later in the day, Burris predicted at a Washington news conference that he would take the Senate seat "very soon."
Reid's staff denied that a deal to seat Burris had been struck, but a Democratic Senate leadership aide said opposition to Burris' appointment had "thawed."
It was a dramatic reversal for a party leadership that just last week had vowed in a written statement that Blagojevich's appointment of Burris "will ultimately not stand."
Undeterred, Burris made his case in a series of talk show appearances, stressing that he was qualified and that there was no evidence his appointment was tainted by corruption.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) broke with party leaders Tuesday, calling for Burris to be seated. She argued that he had been lawfully appointed and that his rejection would set a dangerous precedent.
By Wednesday, the 41-member Congressional Black Caucus unanimously called upon the Senate to admit Burris immediately.
The controversy dominated news coverage, thwarting Democrats' efforts to use the opening of Congress and the run-up to the inauguration to build public support for Obama's economic agenda. It also exposed racial fissures within the party.
Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) said on MSNBC that the sight of Burris holding a news conference in the rain Tuesday after being refused admittance to the Senate floor was akin to "the dogs being sicced on children in Birmingham, Ala."
At their news conference Wednesday, Reid and Durbin went out of their way to invoke Burris' statements that their actions had nothing to do with race.
"Roland Burris, one of the first things he said to us, 'Hey, this is nothing that's racial; I understand that.' So a lot of people tried to make this a racial issue, but Roland Burris has not and will not," Reid said.
Once Burris has completed several procedural steps, Reid said, he expected a swift vote on seating him.
"There's going to come a time when the entire Senate is going to have to act on this," Reid said, "and that day I hope would come sooner rather than later."