Just a week ago, Reid said unequivocally that anyone appointed by scandal-tarred Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich “will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus.” But after a 45-minute meeting with Burris on Wednesday, Reid and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said they had come up with a three-part plan to get Burris into the Senate — and that the hurdles in his way would be “pretty easy” to clear.
Sources say Reid and other Democratic leaders underestimated the spectacle that would be caused by blocking Burris’ appointment and that they’ll now have to explain themselves as they clear the way for him to take President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat.
“It wasn’t Reid’s finest moment, that’s for sure,” said an aide to one veteran Senate Democrat. “This looked bad from the beginning, and it hasn’t gotten any better.”
Reid bristled at the suggestion that he’d been outmaneuvered by Burris.
“It’s simply not true,” he snapped at a Capitol press conference.
Reid’s change of heart on Burris came after the 71-year-old former Illinois attorney general, aided by several Blagojevich operatives, helped gin up a weeklong media fracas that culminated in his being turned away from the Senate on Tuesday.
The fight grew uncomfortable for Democrats as Burris’ supporters — led by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) — argued that race was driving opposition to his appointment.
It was an unwelcome and persistent distraction for Democrats, who have been trying to focus the public’s attention on their ambitious agenda for the 111th Congress — and especially their plans for dealing with the sagging economy. And it only got worse as several prominent Democratic senators, including Dianne Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said Burris should be seated.
“Never underestimate the potential for media overreaction,” Durbin told Politico on Wednesday. “Even Mr. Burris said to me this morning he was stunned by the media that showed up yesterday.”
To quell the media storm, Democratic leaders knew they had to lay out a plan that made it look like they were seriously considering Burris’ appointment while not backing down from their earlier vow not to seat him. But to quiet Burris, they had to give him assurances that he had a relatively clear path to Obama’s Senate seat.
Under the plan Durbin and Reid announced after meeting with Burris on Wednesday, the would-be senator must first get his appointment credentials signed by the Illinois secretary of state — which he has already sued to do. Second, he must testify Thursday before a state legislative committee that is deciding whether to impeach Blagojevich. Third, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee must review and approve his appointment.
To avoid another media spectacle, Burris will likely be able to testify before the Rules Committee via a private deposition rather than in a public hearing, aides said. The resolution proposed by the panel would then move quickly to the Senate floor because it would be considered privileged.
“That day, I hope, will come sooner rather than later,” Reid said of completing the steps in the process.
Burris praised the plan at his own press conference, saying it would lead “very shortly” to his becoming the junior senator from Illinois.
Durbin insisted that the process they had come up with was an “honest, open and transparent” way to assure the American people that Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris wasn’t tainted by the corrupt actions with which Blagojevich has been charged.
He told Politico that the media circus around Burris had added an unforeseen complication to the issue, but he said that the Democratic leaders’ reaction was “appropriate to maintain the integrity of this institution.”
But not everyone was buying it.
“This was more of a plan to cover Harry Reid than to seat Roland Burris,” one GOP aide said.
A senior GOP aide said Democrats are forcing the issue through the Rules Committee and onto the Senate floor in order to argue that both parties agreed to seat Blagojevich’s appointee, not just the Democrats.
Reid and Durbin spoke only briefly about their plans regarding Burris at a closed-door Democratic lunch, senators say.
Afterward, Democratic senators went into damage control mode, insisting that their concern had been only about the legitimacy of the process — and that the Reid-Durbin plan would allow them to test it.
“It was a very difficult, if not impossible, challenge with what happened with the governor of Illinois, and I think our leaders are doing the best they can to make sure everyone is treated fairly,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of the Democratic leadership.
Other Democrats said the leaders could have handled things better.
Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he called Reid last week to tell him that Burris should be seated once his documents were signed by the secretary of state. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said the arguments to deny Burris a seat were “flimsy.” Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa said he thought that “basically, Mr. Burris probably should have been seated.”
In the wake of the leaders’ switch on Burris, Democrats were left trying to explain how giving Burris a path to the Senate was consistent with a Dec. 10 letter in which 50 Democratic senators demanded that Blagojevich refrain from appointing anyone to Obama’s vacant seat.
Leahy said the language of that letter was vague; it said the Senate would be forced to determine “whether” a Blagojevich appointee would be seated.
Asked if she regretted signing the letter, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said: “I don’t think ‘regret’ is the right word. I think we are all trying to do our best to stop this thing that was so irresponsible.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he was going on the “facts as they appeared at the time.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this story.