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Burris heads toward face-off

Roland Burris and Democratic party leaders headed toward a showdown at the door of the U.S. Senate today as the former Illinois attorney general presses his claim to the disputed seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

Burris said in an interview Monday evening that he intended to try to walk onto the Senate floor to be sworn in with incoming senators when the Senate convenes, despite declarations from party leaders that they will prevent him from entering the chamber.

The imagery of authorities stopping a graying African American at the threshold of political power promises to be high drama in a controversy that has melded the politics of race with the corruption scandal swirling around Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

But with Burris, 71, and Senate leaders balancing determination to hold their ground against a wish to avoid generating too much bitterness, the face-off will be choreographed.

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Burris said his staff had notified Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terry Gainer of his intentions. Gainer is an old acquaintance who was director of the Illinois State Police when Burris was attorney general.

“We will only go as far as the sergeant at arms permits us to go,” said Burris. “We will then retreat and meet with our legal team.”

Senate Democrats oppose seating Burris, saying his appointment is tainted by accusations that Blagojevich tried to sell the seat. But Burris maintains that his appointment is lawful.

“What has been done here is legal,” Burris told reporters Monday before flying to Washington. He dismissed repeated questions about the Democratic governor’s scandal, calling it “all politics and theater.”

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And on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed to leave room for compromise. “I’m an old trial lawyer,” the Nevada Democrat said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There’s always room to negotiate.”

Incoming senators customarily are sworn in on the Senate floor beginning at noon in groups of four according to alphabetical order. They are escorted by fellow senators from their home states. If Burris were to be seated, he would be in the second group of four.

But Senate officials rejected paperwork sent by Blagojevich to formally appoint Burris, citing the refusal of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White to sign the certificate.

“If he does not have a certificate that is signed, it is considered incomplete. He is absolutely under the Senate rules not allowed on the Senate floor,” said Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) -- the senior senator who would escort Burris, under normal circumstances.

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During a news conference at Chicago’s Midway Airport, Burris repeated his insistence that he is the state’s junior U.S. senator and that he expects to be granted his seat.

Burris said he planned to meet with Reid on Wednesday.

“I will sit down and talk to Mr. Reid and tell him I’m here to take my seat,” Burris said.

The Illinois House committee investigating whether to impeach Blagojevich has asked Burris to appear in Springfield on Wednesday, but Burris said that would have to wait because he needed to be in Washington.

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“I’m a United States senator,” Burris said at the airport news conference. “They cannot stop me from . . . my senatorial duties.”

Meanwhile, in Illinois, a federal judge set a short timetable for defense lawyers to review four secret recordings made in the federal investigation of Blagojevich.

U.S. District Chief Judge James Holderman directed prosecutors to release the recordings by noon today to attorneys for the four individuals secretly taped in the conversations.

Holderman indicated the tapes could be released to the impeachment committee as early as Thursday if defense attorneys have no quarrel with them, but that prospect appears unlikely.

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mdorning@tribune.com

mgarcia@tribune.com

Chicago Tribune staff writer Jeff Coen contributed to this report.

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