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Decision on Burris' 'future and fate' likely to come this week

But first, says Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin, the Senate's legal counsel must finish its review of paperwork on the appointment by impeached Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich

January 12, 2009|Jill Zuckman and Rick Pearson

WASHINGTON AND CHICAGO — Roland Burris will probably replace Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate this week once the Senate's legal counsel completes a review, Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday.

The legal counsel is to evaluate additional paperwork today on Burris' appointment by impeached Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, Durbin said.

Burris, 71, was appointed by Blagojevich three weeks after the governor's arrest on federal corruption charges, including that he tried to sell the Senate seat.

Burris came to the Capitol to be sworn in with other senators last Tuesday but was turned away.

Although the Senate appeared to be inching closer to seating Burris, potential hitches remained.

"This thing changes by the day," Durbin said.

Senate Democrats spent about half an hour discussing Burris' situation in a closed-door meeting Sunday.

That resulted in Obama's chief economic advisor, Lawrence H. Summers, cooling his heels in a Senate hallway as he waited to discuss the president-elect's economic recovery package.

Durbin said that a decision by the Senate's legal counsel was expected today and that Burris, the first African American elected to statewide office in Illinois, was likely to be seated this week. Burris is a former state attorney general and a former state comptroller.

At issue are documents that Burris obtained Friday from Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White's office. One document is a letter signed by Blagojevich announcing Burris' Dec. 30 appointment, which was filed with the secretary of state's office.

The other is a certificate signed by White and stamped with the state seal attesting that the accompanying Blagojevich appointment letter is a "true and accurate copy" of what was registered by the secretary of state.

Senate Democrats had maintained that without an appointment certified by the signatures of both Blagojevich and White, Burris could not take the Senate seat. White's refusal to sign the appointment was the prime reason senators offered for turning Burris away Tuesday.

Originally, Democrats vowed not to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich, who was arrested Dec. 9 on federal corruption charges.

Obama initially sided with Senate Democrats and urged Blagojevich to resign. But last week he quietly urged senators to settle the issue, which had become a distraction from his economic stimulus proposal.

In addition, the Senate Democratic caucus has splintered over the Burris issue. Some are concerned that Burris should not be turned away from the seat previously held by Obama, who had been the chamber's only black senator. Others did not want to meddle in what they considered a parochial Illinois issue.

Blagojevich's impeachment by the Illinois House on Friday, which could lead to the governor's removal from office, caused some senators to rethink their position on quickly seating Burris, said one Democratic source, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the situation.

Blagojevich, who maintains his innocence, will be tried in the Illinois Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Durbin told Burris last week that he would need to testify before a special Illinois House panel that ultimately recommended Blagojevich's impeachment and that he would need White's signature to certify Blagojevich's appointment.

Burris testified at the impeachment panel last week, denying that any quid pro quo was involved in his appointment.

But the Illinois Supreme Court rejected Burris' attempts to force White to sign the appointment, saying the secretary of state had complied with what was required of him. The justices suggested the alternative paperwork, which Burris submitted.

Earlier, Senate Democrats had sought to stall Burris' appointment in hopes that Illinois lawmakers would quickly remove Blagojevich from office so that Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn could name a new senator.

But Durbin, who also appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday, said it was "point-blank" wrong to think the Senate would await Blagojevich's removal to keep Burris from being seated.

"To wait until Gov. Blagojevich is removed could be a matter of weeks," Durbin said.

--

jzuckman@tribune.com

rpearson@tribune.com

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