By J. Taylor Rushing - 01/15/09 07:24 PM EST
Roland Burris on Thursday officially became the junior senator from the state of Illinois.
The controversial appointee of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) entered the Senate punctually Thursday afternoon and was sworn in by Vice President Cheney, 17 days after Blagojevich tapped him to fill President-elect Obama’s seat.
“It feels terrific,” Burris told The Hill immediately after leaving the chamber as a senator.
A 71-year-old former Illinois attorney general, Burris was greeted at the Senate doors by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as well as the Illinois House delegation, including Democratic Reps. Bobby Rush and Jesse Jackson Jr.
Jackson had publicly expressed interest in the seat, while Rush had infuriated Senate Democratic leaders by charging their initial resistance to Burris was grounded in racism.
Durbin said he told Burris on the Senate floor, “It’s been a long, rocky road but you’re here and you’re going to be a great senator.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) welcomed Burris “as a colleague and a friend.”
“There are many paths to the United States Senate. It is fair to say that the path that brought our new colleague from Illinois to us was unique,” Reid said. “Whatever complications surrounded his appointment, we made it clear from the beginning — both publicly and privately — that our concern was never with him.”
Durbin defended the handling of Burris’s case, saying he and Reid had no choice but to oppose Burris at first because of the charges facing Blagojevich. Durbin also dismissed the suggestion that Burris’s Senate career would be clouded by his association with the embattled governor.
The majority whip conceded, however, that the ordeal was “terrible, awkward and painful” for both Reid and himself, despite the fact that he and Burris were in “constant contact” over the past two and a half weeks. Durbin also stated that he doesn’t believe his friendship with Burris ever suffered.
“It was a long and tortuous path, but it ended well,” Durbin said.
While posing for photos, Burris and Cheney talked about fishing and Cheney remarked that swearing Burris in was among his last official acts as vice president before Tuesday’s inauguration of Obama.
“Good luck to you,” Cheney told Burris.
Burris was accompanied by several family members including his wife, son Roland and daughter Rolanda, as well as friends from law school and Burris’s previous runs for public office.
Speaking to reporters outside an afternoon reception for Burris, Rush strongly defended his references to racism in promoting Burris in recent weeks and said he believed Burris will be the “hands-on favorite” for reelection in 2010.
“The Senate is now more diverse than it had been,” Rush said, noting that Burris has now succeeded Obama as the chamber’s only African-American member. “I was really drawing an accurate picture of what the U.S. Senate used to be like until today. For some people, the truth hurts.”
In brief remarks at the private reception, Burris thanked Rush in particular for his support.
“I’m so excited and elated and overjoyed and — does anyone have another adjective?” Burris said, speaking from behind a podium in the room. “It’s the dream of a lifetime.”
Burris later cast his first vote, against Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) resolution of disapproval on the release of the second half of the $700 billion bailout bill.