WASHINGTON — The opening days of the 111th Congress have become the Roland Burris Congress.
Or, for that matter, the Roland Burris circus.
The economy may be reeling and Gaza may be in flames, but since lawmakers returned on Tuesday, the talk in the halls and much of the media attention has been focused on whether the veteran Illinois official appointed by a governor who's under federal criminal investigation would be able to take the vacate seat of President-elect Barack Obama.
So far, he hasn't been seated, but in the meantime, the key players have looked confused.
"Senate Democrats have created a distraction of sorts at a time when distractions are very, very damaging to the new president's agenda," said Paul Light, a government professor and presidential transition expert at New York University
Obama said last month that while Burris was "a good man," he agreed with Senate Democrats "that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision."
Wednesday, though, he softened his tone.
"If he gets seated, then I'm going to work with Roland Burris, just like I work with all the other senators," Obama said at a news conference, "to make sure that the people of Illinois and the people of the country are served."
Shortly afterward, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who with his colleagues wrote a letter calling Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's action "truly regrettable" and Sunday dubbed the appointment "tainted," also struck a gentler tone.
Reid and Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., met with Burris privately for 45 minutes and emerged in a conciliatory mood.
"He obviously is a very engaging, extremely nice man. He presents himself very well," Reid said.
The handling of the Burris affair, coupled with some grumbling over Obama's choice of Leon Panetta to head the CIA, has given the Senate an early bruise, days before Obama is sworn in as the 44th president. Several political experts said that if the situation isn't resolved swiftly and cleanly, Burris' situation could come back to haunt Senate Democrats as they try to pass Obama's agenda.
"It's stuff they don't need right now because they have a very, very big agenda with issues that are crucial to the country," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at University of California, San Diego. "To manage small fires like this is not helpful."
Several Democratic senators spoke Wednesday of wanting to get this episode behind them and move on with other business.
"Of course, there's a lot more we'd like to be working on, but it's important to make sure we have a senator seated who is properly seated and represents a state and can be a viable member of the Senate," said Durbin, who briefed colleagues on Burris' status during the Democrats' weekly luncheon.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said he wanted to move on.
"I see this as a temporary situation that will soon be resolved hopefully — one way or the other," he said. "And so the news will focus more on the whole idea of a stimulus, how much, and what matter we will be stimulating the economy."
NYU's Light suggested that Senate Democrats should've seated Burris, treating him as a "caretaker," and hope that Blagojevich is impeached and that his successor calls for a special election.
If Burris' situation isn't resolved quickly, Senate Democrats may find themselves paying a price when significant and contentious issues come to the floor for votes. Another seat in Minnesota is empty because Democrat Al Franken, who was declared the winner in a recount over Republican Norm Coleman, is awaiting the results of Coleman's legal challenge.
"It would be stark irony if Reid brings a stimulus package to the floor and loses because of the absence of one or two senators," Light said. "There's got to be a lot of balancing of risk going on by Sen. Reid."
Chances are the issue will continue to crowd out other matters, however. Burris is to testify Thursday afternoon before an Illinois legislative committee considering Blagojevich's impeachment, and is expected to discuss whether he made any deal with the governor to get Obama's seat.
Burris said Wednesday that there was no quid pro quo. Saying that under oath would remove one big obstacle to his seating. Senate leaders, meanwhile, want Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White to certify the appointment.
Finally, the Senate eventually may vote on whether to seat Burris.
Reid and other Senate leaders carefully staged a news conference Wednesday to discuss the 2009 Senate agenda. They stood in front of big posters proclaiming how they would be "Renewing the American Dream," and methodically described their ideas.
When it came time for media questions, four of the first five were about Burris.
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