HIGH NOON…Defiant Burris Heads to Washington to Claim Senate Seat
CHICAGO — Even as Senate leaders continued to challenge his appointment to the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, Roland W. Burris headed to Washington on Monday, setting the stage for a public showdown on Capitol Hill.
In a news conference at Midway airport in Chicago before his scheduled 2:20 p.m. flight to Baltimore, a defiant Mr. Burris told reporters that he was not concerned about the fact that the Illinois secretary of state, Jesse White, has rejected the paperwork that would officially send Mr. Burris to the Senate.
“Why don’t you all understand that what has been done here is legal?” he said. “I am the junior senator from Illinois, and I wish my colleagues in the press would recognize that.”
He later added, “This is all politics and theater, but I am the junior senator according to every law book in the nation.”
Senate leaders have repeatedly said that they intend to block Mr. Burris from joining the chamber, given his appointment last week by this state’s embattled governor, Rod R. Blagojevich. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, has said that the Senate has the legal right to bar Mr. Burris from the new session, which begins Tuesday. And CNN reported Monday that an aide to Nancy Erickson, the secretary of the United States Senate, said that Ms. Erickson had rejected Mr. Burris’s certificate of appointment because, though it was signed by Mr. Blagojevich, it was not cosigned by Mr. White, as the Senate’s rules require.
While Senate leaders weighed their options concerning an appointment they say is tainted by Mr. Blagojevich, a two-term Democrat who was charged last month with, among other things, trying to sell the Senate seat for personal gain, Mr. Burris’s allies here stood firmly behind him.
They pointed to his long political record as the first black leader elected to statewide office in Illinois and expressed their sense that the seat held by Mr. Obama, who had been the only black person in the Senate, should go to another African-American.
“We’re seeking to carry out this opportunity and all the responsibilities pertaining to it,” Mr. Burris said as he left New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday, where hundreds had gathered to support him, some with signs referring to him as senator.
From the church’s pulpit, Mr. Burris told the predominantly African-American crowd that his 4-year-old grandson had asked him what all the fuss was about over the past few days, and he said he responded that it was about his grandson’s own future.
“We’re clear on my credentials,” Mr. Burris said, adding later, “I hope they will follow the law.”
In an appearance on “Meet the Press” on NBC, Mr. Reid said he was leaving the door open to negotiations.
Aides to Mr. Burris, a former Illinois attorney general who seemed to end his political career years ago after several defeats in his efforts to become governor of Illinois, have indicated that they were trying to talk to Senate leaders privately and wanted to avoid any public showdown.
Still, asked if Mr. Burris might become a senator, Mr. Reid replied: “It’s going to be very difficult for that to occur.” But he added, “I’ve learned, being a senator for the time I have, that anything can happen.”
Mr. Reid said he would meet with the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, on Monday night in hopes of reaching a bipartisan decision.
Mr. Burris is scheduled to meet with Senate Democratic leaders on Wednesday, including Mr. Reid and Senator Richard J. Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois.
“We’re going to visit with him,” Mr. Reid said. “We would hope that in the meantime, Governor Blagojevich will do the right thing and step down.”
Despite repeated threats from Senate Democrats that they would not seat anyone Mr. Blagojevich appointed, Mr. Reid said, “There’s always room to negotiate.”
“So you’re not saying no completely that he won’t serve?” asked David Gregory, the host of “Meet the Press.”
“That’s right,” Mr. Reid said, nodding.
At the Chicago church, residents said they had formed a group in the past week in support of Mr. Burris’s appointment, a group that seemed far less focused on Mr. Blagojevich than on the need for a black leader in the Senate.
“The U.S. Senate must reflect all of America,” said Bishop Simon Gordon, one of several pastors at the sendoff.
Representative Bobby L. Rush, an Illinois Democrat who attended the event, described the standoff over Mr. Burris in racial terms, portraying the Senate as “the last bastion of racial plantation politics in America.”
Of the notion that Mr. Obama has also denounced any appointment by Mr. Blagojevich, Mr. Rush said the president-elect had been “ill advised” on the question.
In the NBC interview, Mr. Reid also addressed reports about a conversation he had with Mr. Blagojevich over the vacant Senate seat days before the governor’s Dec. 9 arrest on federal charges of conspiring to commit fraud and soliciting bribery, accusations he has vehemently denied.
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On Friday, Mr. Blagojevich, through his spokesman, revealed Mr. Reid’s Dec. 3 phone call to the governor’s campaign office, seeming to offer it as an alternative explanation for why Senate leaders like Mr. Reid might be contesting the choice of Mr. Burris, who was never raised as a possible appointee during the call.
“I think the governor thinks that it shows that Harry Reid may have a horse in this race, and it’s not Roland Burris,” Lucio Guerrero, the governor’s spokesman, said on Friday.
“A person with knowledge of the conversation, which occurred as federal investigators were recording Mr. Blagojevich’s calls, said Mr. Reid had seemed concerned that some of the Democrats mentioned as possible appointees, including Representatives Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and Danny K. Davis, both of whom are black, might be harder to elect when the appointment period expires in two years.”