Senate to Open with Succession Dramas Still on Stage
By Paul Kane
With just six days till the start of the 111th Congress, the Illinois corruption scandal has complicated what was already shaping up to be an oddly dramatic start for the United States Senate.
Senate Democrats -- who have been rejoicing that four members of their caucus were departing for the new administration -- are left to deal with the mess of the successions of President-elect Barack Obama, Vice-President-elect Joseph Biden, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Interior Secretary-designate Ken Salazar.
The most high-profile scenario involves what Democrats will do if Roland Burris, the choice of scandal-plagued Gov. Rod Blagojevich (Ill.), shows up Tuesday to try to take the oath of office for Obama's seat.
But let's first consider the oddity surrounding Biden.
Not only did Biden win the vice presidency on Nov. 4, he also was elected by the voters of Delaware to his seventh six-year term in the Senate. Unlike Obama, who stepped down from the Senate shortly after the election, Biden has not yet resigned. That's because Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) cannot appoint his successor until Biden's next term actually begins.
So Biden, the next vice president, is going to be on hand at noon Tuesday to get sworn in as a senator by the outgoing vice president, Richard Cheney. Then, according to Biden spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander, sometime between Tuesday and Jan. 20 Biden will officially resign from the Senate -- to become vice president.
Biden's new job, as dictated by the Constitution, will have only one real function: to be president of the chamber he just resigned from.
As confusing as that sounds, Biden and Minner have made clear what will happen with Biden's seat. Biden's former chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, will accept the appointment and serve for just two years -- at which point he will not seek to retain the seat. This will allow for a likely bid in 2010 from Biden's son, Beau, the state attorney general currently serving a tour of duty with the Delaware Army National Guard in Iraq.
Illinois voters might love such an easy route to figuring out who their next senator will be.
Over the objections of Obama and Senate Democratic leaders, Blagojevich yesterday announced his appointment of Burris, who appears to have no ties to the scandals that have landed the governor in trouble with federal authorities, including charges he was trying to sell the Senate appointment to the highest bidder.
"I'm absolutely confident and certain that the United States Senate is going to seat a man of Roland Burris's unquestioned integrity, extensive experience, and his long history of public service. This is about Roland Burris as a United States senator, not about the governor who makes the appointment," Blagojevich told reporters.
This defiance has left several possible outcomes in the Senate:
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, other Democratic leaders and top Senate Republicans have indicated that they have no appetite for seating Burris. Democrats and Obama declared that Blagojevich is too scandal-tarred to make any appointment to a Senate seat he was allegedly trying to auction off for his personal financial benefit. Republicans agree, and they have instead called for the state legislature to pass a law forcing a special election in the early spring -- a move which Democrats oppose, for fear of losing what would otherwise be an easy seat to hold.
Aides today suggested that the most likely route was for the entire matter to be handed over to the Rules committee, which is going to be chaired by Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a member of the Democratic leadership and a close ally of Reid and Obama.
Outside experts on Senate procedure believe this will be a stalling tactic to await impeachment proceedings to conclude in Illinois, so Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn can become governor and make a new appointment. Some have questioned the legitimacy of refusing to seat Burris for ethical and possibly legal sins of Blagojevich, which could provoke a legal showdown.
But Eric Ueland, a parliamentary and legal expert on the Senate, told The Post today that historical precedent has allowed the Senate to conduct investigations of troubling elections. This would make the matter not "justiciable," Ueland said, keeping courts out of the dispute because the Senate has proper jurisdiction.
A senior Democratic aide argued that this is the same process as would occur in a disputed election with possible corruption skewing the outcome. "This is like judging the integrity of an election, free from fraud or corruption. It's the process that led to the appointment, not the appointee's fitness," the aide said.
Such an outcome is also possible in the still contested Minnesota Senate race, where Democrat Al Franken is ahead of Sen. Norm Coleman by less than 50 votes, with another batch of 1,300 absentee votes to count of nearly 3 million total cast.
The Minnesota race is unlikely to be determined until Tuesday, at the earliest, making it likely that the 111th Congress will begin with just 98 senators because of temporary vacancies in Illinois and Minnesota.
That's before even considering the pending vacancies in New York, where Gov. David Patterson is navigating between the competing dynasties of the Kennedy and Cuomo clans, among others, to choose a successor to Clinton; and Colorado, where Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. is seeking advice over the Internet from constituents about who should succeed Salazar.
Posted at 4:19 PM ET on Dec 31, 2008
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