Senate Democratic leaders plan to grant few if any privileges next week to Roland Burris, the man picked by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to represent the state in the Senate, even if Burris arrives on Capitol Hill with the proper credentials.
Senate officials involved in the tangle of legal and logistical planning said Friday that a Democrat will object to Burris being duly sworn with the rest of his class and will propose that his credentials be reviewed for a period of time by the Rules Committee.
That would give Burris the status of a senator-elect to the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama in the juiciest of several dramas swirling around open Senate seats days before the 111th Congress convenes.
Senate Democrats are slow-walking Burris’ appointment because they hope Blagojevich will be removed from office before the Rules Committee completes its investigation.
As early as next week Blagojevich — federal authorities accuse him of offering to sell the appointment to the highest bidder — could become the state’s first chief executive to be impeached. A state Senate trial would follow and if he were convicted, Blagojevich would be removed from office.
For his part, Burris planned to argue his case in the news media and threatened to sue Senate Democrats if they refuse to swear him in as the chamber’s only black member.
Race is a prominent force in the dispute. Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., said he called Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and "made it abundantly clear that we felt that they should reconsider."
No luck, Payne reported on Friday.
"I have heard no one say that they felt that he is not qualified," Payne said. Race would not be a factor, he added, were there black members of the Senate. "There is a legitimate opportunity to have the Senate at least start to look a teeny bit like America."
Democrats have said that their opposition to Burris is not about Burris but the fact that anyone appointed by Blagojevich would be tainted by the corruption charges against the governor.
And they’re not budging, despite significant questions about whether they have the legal standing to block an appointee of a sitting governor.
The only way Burris will be allowed on the floor, according to Democratic officials who asked not to be identified, is if he possesses a certification of appointment signed by Blagojevich and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.
Burris would then be treated as a senator-elect, which by tradition means he’ll be allowed on the Senate floor without voting or speaking privileges — and he wouldn’t be granted a desk, according to the officials. They requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The man charged with letting people through the door of the chamber, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, said he expects the two sides to work out a deal before Tuesday.
Gainer has known Burris since their days in Illinois law enforcement, when Burris was attorney general and Gainer was the director of the state police.
"He is a good man," Gainer said in a telephone interview. "He plays by the rules. I don’t think there’s going to be a confrontation."
Republicans have been wary about commenting, pleased to see Democrats mucking through a political mess of their own party’s making.
But Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona said Friday that he wants to review state and federal law before opining on whether Burris should be seated. Still, he questioned whether the legal status of the patron is enough reason to block the appointee.
"The Senate has to be very careful of setting a precedent that just because it doesn’t like the governor that appointed (Burris) we therefore refuse to seat a qualified appointee," Kyl said in a telephone interview.
Not that Republicans are against blocking people from being seated. Another Republican leader, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters Friday that he would object to seating any new senator from Minnesota until an anticipated court case is finished and an official election certificate issued in the battle between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.
In contrast, nobody’s objecting to Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, who is expected to be named to replace Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., set to be Obama’s interior secretary.
In the Illinois case, Senate Democrats believe the Constitution and their agenda-setting power give them the tools for a slow-motion rejection of Burris’ credentials if they are not signed by both the governor and White, who has refused to certify anyone Blagojevich appoints.
If Burris appears at the Capitol with his certification signed by Blagojevich and White, the officials said, Burris would be permitted on the Senate floor.
Vice President Dick Cheney, as president of the Senate, would then ask whether anyone objects to the senators-elect being duly sworn. A Democrat would object and propose that Burris’ credentials be referred to the Rules Committee for an investigation. If no one objects to that motion, the credentials go to the panel for a period of perhaps 90 days.
In the meantime, Burris gets the privileges of an unsworn senator-elect. The Senate’s unofficial customs and traditions leave unclear whether that status would come with a pay check, but Burris could be accorded a stipend for staff and given office space.
Associated Press writers Steven K. Paulson in Denver, Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and Christopher Wills in Chicago contributed to this report.