Questions for Democrats hang over two Senate seats
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Democratic Party control of the U.S. Senate is being eroded by uncertainty over two seats four months after the election that put Barack Obama in the White House.
One of Minnesota's two seats is still vacant because the November election was too close to call and the decision there is tied up in court for the foreseeable future.
In Illinois, Obama's former seat was filled by Democrat Roland Burris. But Burris is now under investigation about his ties to disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who appointed him after being accused of trying to sell the seat. Persistent questions have dogged Burris.
The party, including two independents who vote with the Democrats, now controls 58 of the 100 Senate seats with one still vacant. But even with that edge the Democrats have come up short on some important tests.
Last week the party leadership fell one vote short of the 60 needed to end debate in the Senate and pass a budget measure. The 60-vote level is essential to move Obama's goals forward on top issues, from health care to judicial appointments.
So the fate of the Minnesota seat became even more crucial after the U.S. Congress convened in January, according to Tim Carpenter, national director of the Progressive Democrats of America.
"Especially with the crisis in Illinois, it's more important than ever for Norm Coleman to step out of the way and let the Senate get on with the people's business," said Carpenter, referring to Minnesota's former Republican Senator.
Coleman trailed Democrat Al Franken by 225 votes following a lengthy recount and a court hearing that continues. His lawyers have insisted that thousands of absentee ballots that have been ruled ineligible be counted.
The seat "is the battle for real control of the U.S. Senate," says David Schultz, a professor at Minnesota's Hamline University.
MINNESOTA VACANCY HELPS GOP
"For the GOP a vacancy is as good as electing Coleman," he said, because the empty seat still leaves the Democrats short of 60 seats. He believes it will be late summer before the state recount litigation is completed.
In Illinois, Burris has refused suggestions from fellow Democrats that he resign, and party leaders have backed off.
But he is under investigation by a prosecutor in Springfield, the state capitol, over whether he perjured himself in testimony before the state legislature in January as he fought to be seated in the Senate.
After Blagojevich defied party members and named Burris on December 30, inconsistencies emerged in Burris' testimony, legal affidavits and public comments about his contacts with the then-governor's staff.
If damaging information emerges, Burris could face renewed pressure to resign or even expulsion by the Senate. Burris, the only African American in the Senate -- as was Obama -- has also rallied many black Democrats behind him.
Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn last month suggested Burris step aside and allow the balance of Obama's term, which runs through 2010, to be filled via a special election.
The special election idea was cheered by Republicans but has gone nowhere in the Democratic-controlled state legislature because of fears that Democrats could lose the seat.
Lance Trover, spokesman for the Illinois Republican Party, said, "Blagojevich Democrats have wrecked the state of Illinois both financially and ethically" and the GOP will press that issue in 2010, special election or not.
Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago, does not think Burris will resign. He also said Democrats in the legislature will never agree to a special Senate election: "You can take that to the bank."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Stern; editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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