WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Roland Burris proclaimed himself the new junior senator from Illinois — but it appeared only one fellow Democrat in the U.S. Senate chamber publicly agreed with him.
Burris’ path into the Senate was blocked on Tuesday by top Democrats who have resisted his appointment by the state’s scandal-stained Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The dispute over Burris, who was named to replace President-elect Barack Obama, threw a distracting shadow over celebrations by Democrats, who were starting work in a new Congress with an increased majority and looking forward to having a fellow Democrat in the White House on January 20.
Blagojevich was arrested last month on charges of trying to sell the Obama Senate seat — charges he has denied — and Democrats took a dim view of his subsequent naming of Burris to fill the seat.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California broke ranks with Democratic leaders and told reporters on Capitol Hill she believed Blagojevich had the right to make the appointment and that Burris should be seated, her office said.
Burris was to meet on Wednesday with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Richard Durbin of Illinois.
Reid said earlier this week without elaboration that there’s always room to negotiate on seating Burris.
As new senators prepared to be sworn in on Tuesday, Burris, who would be the only black member of the 100-seat chamber, stood in the rain across the street from the Capitol.
“My name is Roland Burris. I am the junior senator from the state of Illinois,” the 71-year-old said in a brief statement to a throng of reporters.
But the secretary of the Senate did not see it that way, having just advised Burris that his credentials were not in order to be seated in the 111th Congress. Burris said he was referring the matter to his lawyers.
Democrats in Washington say they hold nothing personal against Burris, a former Illinois state attorney general.
But the party that has billed itself as bringing ethics back to Congress after a string of Republican scandals during eight years under President George W. Bush now wants no part of anything related to Blagojevich.
Moves are under way in the Illinois state legislature to remove the governor from office. Some Republicans have urged a special election be held to find a new senator, bypassing the governor.
Blagojevich said in a statement in Chicago: “As governor, it is my duty and obligation to appoint a senator when there is a vacancy. I have done that by appointing Roland Burris, a good and decent man... Any allegations against me should not be held against him and especially not the people of Illinois.”
Burris, who was formally blocked because his Senate application was not signed by Illinois secretary of state, left the Capitol saying he did not want a confrontation.
He has asked the Illinois Supreme Court for a quick decision on his request that the secretary of state be required to sign a certificate declaring him a U.S. senator.
Congressional leadership aides acknowledged there was some question whether there is a legal need for certification, leaving the dispute in murky territory.
Democrats had planned to swear in comic-turned politician Al Franken of Minnesota on Tuesday even though that state’s governor has not certified him as the winner of a razor-close race that faces legal challenges from the Republican incumbent.
But they put off plans to seat Franken, yielding to Republican threats that they would block his swearing in.
Editing by Vicki Allen