WASHINGTON - Senate Democratic leaders appeared to back off their solemn vow not to admit former Illinois Attorney General Roland W. Burris to the world's greatest deliberative body.
After saying less than 10 days ago that Burris, the appointee of disgraced Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, "will not" be admitted, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered on Wednesday a pathway for Burris to take the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
The move, joined by Obama and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., appears designed to defuse a messy legal and racial controversy that is clouding the environment leading up to Obama's inauguration in less than two weeks.
The recipe, indicated by Reid and by Burris, in separate press conferences, involves getting the high court in Illinois to declare that Burris' appointment doesn't require the signature of the Illinois secretary of state and for Burris to testify before the Illinois Legislature about any contact he had with Blagojevich about the office.
The formula doesn't promise to end the controversy soon, but it helps defuse right-wing charges that the Senate's Democrats don't want a black man to enter the chamber, and the probability that the U.S. Supreme Court will not uphold the Senate Democrats' rejection of Burris.
On Dec. 30 Durbin and Obama called on Blagojevich to resign and let the state's lieutenant governor pick someone else. Blagojevich didn't quit, and yesterday Obama said he would be able to work with Burris if he actually becomes a senator. Meanwhile, Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy group, filed a Supreme Court suit charging that the Democrats' barring of Burris is unconstitutional.