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Feinstein backs Burris

Roland Burris gained a powerful ally in his bid to replace President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday when Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California urged the Senate to seat him, arguing that his appointment was lawful.

Her stance could strengthen Burris’ position as he meets with Senate leaders today.

Burris, appointed by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, came to the Capitol to be sworn in with other senators Tuesday but was barred from the Senate floor.

Democratic leaders contend they have the right to reject him because the Illinois secretary of state has refused to sign his paperwork.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and others say the appointment is tainted because Blagojevich faces federal corruption charges, which include trying to sell the seat.

But Feinstein, outgoing chairwoman of the committee that judges senators’ credentials, said Blagojevich’s status was beside the point.

“If you don’t seat Mr. Burris, it has ramifications for gubernatorial appointments all over America,” she told reporters in a Capitol hallway. “Mr. Burris is a senior, experienced politician. He has been [state] attorney general, he has been [state comptroller], and he is very well respected. I am hopeful that this will be settled.”

Her stance was a shift from last month, when 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus -- including Feinstein -- warned Blagojevich that if he attempted to fill the seat, his choice would be rejected.

But Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris undermined Democrats’ unity. Some members of Congress now contend that Reid should not stand in the door of the Senate to bar Burris -- a reference to Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace’s conduct during the desegregation of a state university in 1963.

But Tuesday was mostly a day of political theater. Burris attracted more attention than anyone who actually took the oath of office.

Throngs of reporters and camera crews waited in the rain for him to arrive and, like paparazzi, documented his every step. Burris was escorted by the Senate sergeant-at-arms, former Illinois State Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.

The media contingent filled a hallway outside a Capitol office while Senate officials rejected Burris’ credentials behind closed doors. As Burris left the building, a Senate employee walked beside him with a golf umbrella to shield him from the rain. Police cleared a path through the media scrum, and Burris held a news conference at a park across the street.

“My name is Roland Burris, the junior senator from the state of Illinois,” he declared, with the Capitol dome in the background. “I was advised that my credentials were not in order.”

Burris is to meet with Reid and Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) today. Reid hinted Sunday that his opposition was not absolute. “I’m an old trial lawyer,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There’s always room to negotiate.”

Aside from the involvement of Blagojevich, another concern is that Burris could be a weak candidate for election in 2010.

One idea floated by some Democratic officials is that Burris might be seated if he agreed not to run.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, Burris’ attorneys moved to amend his state lawsuit to force Secretary of State Jesse White to co-sign Burris’ appointment.

“We don’t believe the people of Illinois elected Jesse White to be the de facto governor,” said Burris attorney Timothy Wright.

Burris’ legal team is preparing a federal lawsuit over the Senate seat too, invoking the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision that the House could not exclude Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.).

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mdorning@tribune.com

Tribune reporter Monique Garcia contributed to this report from Chicago.


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