CHICAGO – Illinois U.S. Senate appointee Roland Burris is leaving for Washington on Monday afternoon for a high-stakes stakes showdown on Capitol Hill about whether he'll succeed President-elect Barack Obama in Congress.
Burris, appointed by embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was leaving a day after dozens of black leaders and ministers organized by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush gave him a rousing send-of at New Covenant Church on Chicago's South Side.
Also Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the chances of Burris being sworn in are slim. Reid said he expected to meet with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Monday evening in hopes "we can solve this issue on a bipartisan basis." Reid added, "I'm an old trial lawyer. There's always room to negotiate."
At the church sendoff, Burris took the stage to a crescendo of drums, organ music and applause as hundreds of supporters cheered his appointment.
"We are hoping and praying that they will not be able to deny what the Lord has ordained," Burris said. "I am not hesitating. I am now the junior Senator from the state of Illinois. Some people may want to question that and that is their prerogative."
Opponents say Burris' appointment is tainted because it was made by Blagojevich, who is accused by federal authorities of offering to sell the vacancy to the highest bidder.
Burris, a former state attorney general, says the appointment is legal and the governor had the authority to do it. He has threatened to sue Senate Democrats if they refuse to swear him in as the chamber's only black member.
Reid said there would be "a cloud over anyone that comes from the state of Illinois being appointed by Blagojevich."
The second-ranking Democrat, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, acknowledged that his Blagojevich has the state constitutional authority to fill the vacancy.
"The Senate of the United States has the U.S. constitutional responsibility to decide if Mr. Burris was chosen in a proper manner and that is what we're going to do," Durbin said.
Burris said he attempted to arrange a meeting with Durbin on Monday or Tuesday but learned he was too busy. He said the two made an appointment for Wednesday, the day after new senators are set to be sworn in.
Democratic leaders, however, plan to afford Burris few, if any, privileges even if he were to come to the Capitol with the proper credentials.
Senate officials have said a Democrat will object to Burris being duly sworn with the rest of his class Tuesday and will propose that his credentials be reviewed for a period of time by the Senate Rules Committee. That would give Burris the status of a senator-elect and buy some time as Democrats hope Blagojevich will be removed from office before the committee completes its investigation.
At New Covenant Church, Rush called the Senate the "last bastion of plantation politics." The Chicago Democrat said blacks had been "excluded systematically for too long."
But several people sitting in the pews during the Burris send-off said their support for his appointment has nothing to do with the him being African-American.
"I'm elated, very happy, overjoyed. Burris has served this community for many years," said 66-year-old D. Shepherd, a retired minister from Chicago. "He's the best man under the circumstances; it's not because he's black."
While the Burris furor dominated public discussion, Illinois lawmakers quietly continued work that could lead to Blagojevich being removed from office.
Members of the Illinois House impeachment committee reviewed a 54-page draft summary of the allegations against the Democratic governor. Lawmakers said the summary did not include any recommendations on whether Blagojevich should be impeached. That will come after the panel finishes its fact-finding — perhaps by the middle of this week.
The impeachment committee hopes to learn Monday whether it will be given access to some of the federal government's recordings of Blagojevich. It also wants Burris to testify about his conversations with the governor that led to the Senate appointment.