Seat Burris, skip drama

Following the drizzly and drama-soaked spectacle of Roland Burris being turned away at the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, it appears he will join the club after all. It has become perfectly clear that not only is the Senate’s authority to reject him anything but clear, but that losing the seat to the GOP in 2010 would practically feel good compared to the headache Burris was prepared to give Democrats and a President Obama from his one-man chamber-in-exile, where impromptu news conferences before media mobs could soon become a daily fixture.

Weeks ago, Obama joined Senate Democrats in opposing the appointment of Burris to his former Senate seat, since it was made by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who had been arrested and slapped with a criminal complaint and who now faces possible indictment and impeachment as well. Back then the Democrats joined together to declare that any appointment made by Blagojevich would be blocked by the Senate. That was when they were relying on an indictment due on or before Jan. 9, 30 days after the governor’s arrest. With U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald having asked for a 90-day extension, the Senate Democratic leadership allowed the appointment of a man free of any ethical blemish, by a sitting governor who hadn’t been indicted or convicted, to blossom into a public-relations disaster. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) joined the Seat Burris Bandwagon on Tuesday, it was all but over.

As Burris stoked the flames, in churches, airports and every interview he could provide, the firestorm focused the nation’s attention on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But all along, it should have been Obama who ended the Burris spectacle. Just before Burris met Wednesday with Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D), currently the only senator from Illinois, Obama told the press the Burris case was a “Senate matter.” Some press reports cited unnamed Obama aides taking credit for the reversal, but with the mess already made, it matters little. Obama should have put an end to this many news cycles ago.
In an interview with our newspaper this week, Reid stated firmly, “I do not work for Barack Obama. I work with him.” But it was Obama who decided the question of whether to punish Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) after he campaigned for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) against Obama. Lieberman sought to unite once again with the Democrats he caucuses with by threatening to join the Republicans if his committee chairmanship was taken away, and he got to keep it. If Lieberman’s unctuous behavior can be forgiven under the “let’s disagree but not be disagreeable” policy, how could Obama have turned his back on Burris — an old political ally who is also unsullied by any connection to Blagojevich?

There is much to gain by relenting on Burris, like focusing on passing an economic stimulus package and avoiding not only Burris’s court challenges, which could set up a constitutional crisis, but those of a rival appointee by a new governor. More importantly, it prevents a dangerous precedent for the Senate.
Obama should also insist that Senate Democrats not try extracting a promise from Burris that he won’t run in 2010; to do so is to admit that they blocked him because they think he can’t win reelection. Surely, Obama and the leadership can remind old Burris that while he is in the club for now, they reserve the right, and likely the intention, of bringing the full force of Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago might, Sen. Charles Schumer’s (N.Y.) leadership of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the entire Democratic National Committee against him in the 2010 primary with a stronger candidate. Having lost five Democratic primaries over the course of his lackluster political career, Burris is likely to agree agreeably, and make retirement his idea.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.