WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In an abrupt switch, Democratic leaders began talks on Wednesday to swear in Roland Burris, appointed by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate.
Amid pressure from other Democrats, including black lawmakers, negotiations started a day after the former Illinois attorney general was barred from the Senate when he came to take the oath. Burris would be the only black member of the 100-member chamber.
“This was a positive meeting. It moved us forward,” Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois said after a 45-minute session with Burris and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats are awaiting a number of legal and procedural moves that will likely clear the way for Burris to take office after a vote by the full Senate.
Senate Democratic leaders initially rejected Blagojevich’s appointment of Burris last month, saying it was tainted since the governor is accused of having tried to sell the seat to the highest bidder. “It will ultimately not stand,” they had declared in a joint statement.
But under pressure from party loyalists, Reid said this week there was room for negotiations. Burris has sworn under oath he committed no wrongdoing in accepting the appointment.
“There was certainly no pay-to-play involved, because I don’t have no money,” Burris told reporters on Wednesday.
Obama, who had opposed the appointment, said on Wednesday he was ready to work with Burris.
“He’s a fine public servant,” Obama told a Washington news conference. “If he gets seated, then I‘m going to work with Roland Burris just like I worked with all the other senators.”
Burris would replace Obama, who gave up the Senate seat after being elected as the nation’s first black president.
Obama and Reid talked in recent days about the new Congress that convened on Tuesday and agreed an “amicable solution” needed to be reached on Burris, a Democratic Party aide said.
In the Illinois Supreme Court, the state attorney general argued the secretary of state could not be required to certify the appointment of Burris. Burris filed a motion that the 1884 Senate rule requiring certification should not apply.
There has been some question about whether the Senate certification rule carries the weight of law.
Judicial Watch, a public interest group, filed suit demanding that the Senate seat Burris.
If Burris is sworn in, he would increase Democrats’ majority in the Senate to 58, their biggest since 1981.
The 41-member Congressional Black Caucus voted unanimously on Wednesday in favor of Burris being sworn in.
“He is duly qualified,” Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of the black caucus and the third-ranking House Democrat as majority whip, told MSNBC.
Senate Rules Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said on Tuesday Blagojevich had the right to make the appointment and Burris should be seated.
The Illinois Legislature is considering impeaching Blagojevich, charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery. Burris is to testify at an impeachment hearing on Thursday.
Reid said Democrats could send the Burris appointment to the Rules Committee for a review of its own. He said the full Senate may ultimately decide the issue.
Editing by Peter Cooney