WASHINGTON, Jan 6 – The new US Senate is set to convene in a swirl of allegations of corruption, voter fraud and dynastic nepotism that threatens to dog the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The class of 2009 could face a chaotic swearing-in ceremony Tuesday. In the most high-profile standoff, Obama’s designated replacement for Illinois, Roland Burris, could be stopped from taking his seat by fellow Democrats.
The Democrat claiming victory in Minnesota faces his own bitter objections from Republican members. And then there is the fate of Hillary Clinton’s seat in New York, which is coveted by a member of the legendary Kennedy clan.
Republican Senator John Cornyn told MSNBC television there were "a couple of ancient precedents" for this level of intrigue in the august legislative chamber’s earliest days.
"But this is a very unusual time, to say the least," he said, promising to block former comedian Al Franken’s designation as Minnesota senator after a hard-fought election against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.
After repeated recounts, Minnesota election officials Monday certified Franken as the winner by just 225 votes, out of nearly three million cast. Franken said he was "proud and humbled" but the Coleman camp, crying foul over the recounts, vowed to fight through the courts.
The senatorial to-and-fro is an unwelcome distraction for Obama as he prepares to take office on January 20, reliant on a focused Congress to enact his ambitious plans including a mammoth economic stimulus package.
Republican blocking tactics in the Senate could undermine that agenda, especially if the Democrats’ provisional working majority of 59-41 is weakened by court challenges.
The circus surrounding Burris — and more specifically around Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich — is a distraction closer to home for the president-elect following his weekend move to Washington from Chicago.
Backed by Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says there is nothing wrong as such with Burris, the former attorney-general of Illinois. But, they argue, there is everything wrong with the governor who appointed him.
Blagojevich is under federal investigation for corruption, including allegations that he schemed to sell off Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Reid has invoked the constitution and historical precedent to insist that the Senate’s own members, and not Blagojevich, will have the final say over Burris’s appointment.
Burris, who was the first African-American elected to state-wide office in Illinois, is promising not to make a scene. But en route to Washington Monday, he insisted he was the rightful heir to Obama’s seat.
Burris could face a legal hurdle after Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who like other state leaders wants Blagojevich to resign, refused to sign the paperwork he must present to Senate officials.
But in front of a scrum of reporters at Chicago’s Midway airport, Burris exclaimed: "This is all politics and theatre, but I am the junior senator (for Illinois) according to every law book in the nation."
After the shake-up of the November elections, the compilation of the Obama cabinet is also triggering changes in the Senate.
From Colorado, Senator Ken Salazar is Obama’s nominee to be interior secretary and he is being replaced by the well-regarded Denver schools chief.
Far more controversy surrounds the question of who New York Governor David Paterson should choose to succeed Clinton, who is Obama’s pick for secretary of state.
Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of assassinated president John F. Kennedy, wants the job. Veterans of the state’s bear pit politics are unimpressed by her family name and want one of their own appointed.