WASHINGTON, Jan 7 – Top Democrats symbolically barred the Senate door to the man chosen by Illinois’s scandal-tainted governor to fill president-elect Barack Obama’s seat, in the latest twist of a bizarre political sideshow.
"My credentials were not in order and will not be accepted," said Roland Burris, standing with his lawyers before a media scrum in freezing rain across the street from the Capitol building in Washington.
Burris, 71, was picked last week to fill Obama’s vacant seat by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was arrested in December for alleged corruption, including seeking to sell the seat to the highest bidder.
Because his appointment has not been signed by the Illinois secretary of state as required by Senate rules, Burris’s credentials were rejected by US Senate Secretary Nancy Erickson.
The frenzy surrounding Burris’s appointment is an unwelcome distraction for Obama and Democrats, whose top priority in the new Congress is pushing for swift action on a huge economic stimulus package, worth at least $750 billion.
But on the day lawmakers were sworn in to take their seats in the 111th Congress, Burris said that, for now, he was not looking for a public fight with top Democrats, namely Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation," Burris told dozens of jostling reporters and photographers, who had followed him and his security entourage in steady rain from his hotel to Capitol Hill.
After his appointee was rejected, Blagojevich said the "people of Illinois are entitled to be represented by two senators" adding he had fulfilled his duty as governor in filling the vacant spot.
"Any allegations against me should not be held against him and especially not the people of Illinois," Blagojevich said in a statement.
Burris, a veteran African-American Illinois statesman, has found little support from fellow Democrats in Washington over the past week, while his supporters have made thinly veiled charges of racism over the situation.
If his appointment is accepted, Burris would replace Obama as the only African-American in the 100-seat Senate.
Obama, who resigned his seat after winning the November 4 presidential election, has backed the Senate leadership by saying he regrets Burris’s appointment and has called on Blagojevich to resign.
Speaking to reporters outside the Capitol, Burris’s lawyer Timothy Wright said there were several options now, including further negotiations with top senators or challenging the decision in the courts.
Wright even questioned the legal foundation for Burris being barred from the Senate floor or taking the oath of office.
"All of which we think was improperly done. And it is against the law of this land," Wright said.
Burris will remain in Washington until he can "deliberate with the Senate leadership and perhaps get them to reverse themselves," added Wright.
Reid, speaking to a virtually empty Senate chamber later Tuesday, described Burris’s meetings at the Capitol as "gracious," but confirmed Burris had not been "in possession of the necessary credentials."
Burris’s attorneys however cited a "200, 300-year-old case" as a precedent, with Wright telling reporters: "From that we have determined that senator Roland Burris is the junior senator from the state of Illinois."