Senate Democratic leaders opened a path yesterday to seating Roland Burris in the U.S. Senate after days of distracting political controversy over their refusal to do so and a behind-the-scenes request from President-elect Barack Obama to resolve the matter.
Though Obama at first supported party leaders in barring Burris from the Senate and maintained public neutrality on the controversy in comments yesterday , he privately urged key Democrats during meetings Monday to drop their opposition to seating Burris, said a senior Democratic official.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, emerged from a 45-minute meeting with Burris at the Capitol to praise the former Illinois attorney general as "candid and forthright" and outline a process through which Burris could be seated. The Democratic leader stressed testimony Burris is to give today to an Illinois state legislative committee considering impeachment charges against Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Though Reid's staff denied a deal to seat Burris had been struck, a Democratic Senate leadership aide said opposition to Burris' appointment had "thawed." It was a dramatic reversal for a party leadership that just last week vowed in a written statement that Blagojevich's appointment of Burris "will ultimately not stand."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, had broken with party leaders Tuesday and called for Burris to be seated, arguing that he was lawfully appointed. Yesterday , the 41-member Congressional Black Caucus unanimously called upon the Senate to admit Burris immediately.
The controversy also exposed racial fissures within the party. Unbidden by any questions from reporters on the subject, both Reid and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat,. went out of their way to invoke statements from Burris to defend their treatment of him as not racially motivated.
"Roland Burris, one of the first things he said to us, 'Hey, this is nothing that's racial; I understand that.' So a lot of people tried to make this a racial issue, but Roland Burris has not and will not," Reid said at a news conference after the meeting with Burris.