WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats who thought they could push away Roland Burris misjudged the racial fallout, underestimated public reaction and wound up on shaky legal ground.
The blunders began when the Democrats, including President-elect Barack Obama, insisted they would not seat Burris as the Senate’s only black member because the appointment came from a governor accused of trying to sell Obama’ former seat.
On Wednesday, they all but admitted being outflanked by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, praising Burris and suggesting he soon will be a senator.
Eight days ago, Obama and Senate Democratic leaders saw Blagojevich as so politically damaged that they announced they would reject anyone he appointed to finish Obama’s term. Every Democratic senator signed a letter to the same effect.
Privately, key Democrats now admit they miscalculated from the start. They spent this week trying to backtrack and save face.
They had overstated their legal powers to block Burris’s appointment, they said, and failed to foresee the ability of Burris – a little-known Democrat with no apparent ties to Blagojevich’s misdeeds – to make himself a sympathetic figure in the national media.
Race complicated the matter, with many people asking how Democrats could prevent Burris from replacing Obama as the only black senator.
Underlying the Democrats’ initial response to Blagojevich’s appointment was a cold political calculation. Many felt that Burris, who unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination for governor three times, would be a weak nominee when the Senate seat comes up for election in 2010. Knowing an incumbent senator can be hard to beat in a party primary, Senate Democrats had hoped to postpone acting on Blagojevich’s choice until if and when the governor was replaced, making it possible to put a more potent campaigner in the Senate seat.
Now, however, Democratic senators and strategists are reconciling themselves to the possibility of being stuck with Burris.
When Blagojevich, himself a Democrat, announced his choice of Burris on Dec. 30, Obama and Senate Democrats were fixated on the lurid accusations against the governor, according to interviews with several Democratic aides and lawmakers. Federal officials had arrested Blagojevich on Dec. 9, saying wiretaps caught him talking crudely of trying to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Top Democrats’ response was quick and nearly unanimous: Burris would never be seated because of the governors’ misdeeds.
“Anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative” and “will not be seated by the Democratic caucus,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his top deputy, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Obama said, “Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat.”
Obama, Reid and Durbin are lawyers and among the nation’s highest-achieving politicians. Now, however, their initial comments seem unusually tone-deaf.
The ground shifted quickly beneath the Democrats, in several ways. Most importantly, the public’s focus moved from Blagojevich, who was easily vilified, to Burris, a likable if obscure politician whose highest office had been Illinois attorney general.
The more people learned about Burris, the more they saw him not fitting the story line of sleazy Chicago politics. From the start, Obama,
Reid and others acknowledged that he apparently played no role in the governor’s bid for favors. As news accounts focused more on Burris than Blagojevich, the arguments against the appointment made less sense.
Meanwhile, the legal basis for opposing Burris came under greater scrutiny. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had signed the letter opposing Burris’s appointment, but on Tuesday, the day Burris got turned away from the Capitol into a cold rain, she had a new view.
“Does the governor have the power, under law, to make the appointment?” she asked rhetorically. Yes, she answered, no matter how many accusations are lodged against him.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, phoned Reid last week to express concerns about the legal basis for barring Burris, and warned that the Democratic solidarity was crumbling.
On Monday, Obama and Reid spoke. Obama “conveyed the sense that if Burris has the legal standing to be seated, he should be, sooner rather than later,” said a transition official who could speak only on background because the conversation was private.
The Congressional Black Caucus was preparing to vote unanimously to support seating Burris.
On Wednesday, everything seemed changed. Reid warmly received Burris in his Capitol office, then told reporters he was waiting for the Illinois Supreme Court to decide whether the Illinois secretary of state had to sign off on Blagojevich’s appointment.
“I think it’s a pretty easy hurdle to get over,” Reid said of the remaining impediments to seating Burris.
A reporter asked whether Blagojevich had outmaneuvered him.
No, Reid said, recounting the governor’s arrest, vulgar language and wiretapped descriptions of the empty Senate seat as a gold mine to be sold.
“How are we supposed to react?” Reid asked, a bit plaintively. “We’ve acted in a very reasonable way.”
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Ben Evans, Erica Werner and Ann Sanner contributed to this report.
Photo: Roland Burris