Wednesday, February 25, 2009
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A frosty reception for an embattled senator

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[February 25, 2009]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. Roland Burris got unmistakably polite but distant treatment from House and Senate members at President Barack Obama's address to Congress Tuesday -- a sure sign of trouble in the culture of Capitol Hill.

DonutsA few nodded, smiled at him or shook his hand. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. gave him a hug on his way into the chamber.

"I did nothing wrong, Jesse. I did nothing wrong," Burris said, not needing to fill Jackson in on the calls for Burris' resignation from Illinois to Washington. Jackson nodded but didn't say much.

Burris turned, grinned and waved -- it wasn't clear to whom -- as he moved down the aisle between Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz. They were polite, but focused elsewhere.

There were no cheers of support for Burris, the only black member of the Senate.

Someone showed Burris to his seat just under the press gallery. Nobody immediately chatted with him, so Burris held up a hand to shield him from the glare and appeared to scan the galleries, presumably for friends or family. He glanced at his program.


Members of Congress have special public rituals for pariahs who cannot, for various reasons, be ejected.

At best, they show a distinct lack of made-for-TV enthusiasm for the scorned. At worst, they'll stare into the middle distance as if through Those Not to Be Acknowledged.

More commonly, they smile, but not warmly; hug everyone else and issue a polite nod or maybe back-pat to the undesirable before moving on. Rarely, they'll turn their backs or be rude. Particularly not on live television.

Burris, the Democrat from Illinois, was urged to resign hours earlier by the other Senate Democrat from Illinois, Dick Durbin. He had been appointed by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was resisted and then accepted by Senate Democrats only when the political cost of keeping him out ran too high.

New questions about how Burris won the appointment, and his evolving answers, generated calls for his resignation back home. Almost as soon as he hit the ground in Washington Tuesday, Durbin made the same, er, suggestion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn't even make that much effort, dispatching a spokesman to say that Burris would have to make up his own mind on that.

For Tuesday at least, Burris remained a United States senator and as such merited a seat on the House floor for Obama's address to Congress. Someone showed Burris to his seat, very near to where Obama sat last year. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., turned around and chatted with him briefly. So did Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

But Sen. John Tester of Montana soon sidled in one row back and gave Casey a bear-hug. Conrad resumed speaking to someone in front of him.

And Burris spent much of the time before Obama began speaking standing between the backs of his seat mates.


Where there was a perceived snub a year earlier, there was a kiss and a hug Tuesday night.

Obama opened his arms wide when he spotted his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and leaned in to give her a kiss. She responded in kind. Briefly, they made a sandwich of Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who scooted out from between them. The hug resumed, then ended and Obama moved on to greet members of the Supreme Court.

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A year ago, at former President George W. Bush's final State of the Union address, Obama and Clinton were Democratic senators clenched in a bitter battle for their party's presidential nomination. Obama, seated between Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., saw Clinton coming up the aisle toward him when McCaskill tapped him on the shoulder. Obama took the opportunity then to turn toward McCaskill and away from Clinton, who continued past him with no greeting between the two.


Ailing and deeply respected members of the Washington establishment were saluted in different ways Tuesday.

Obama called for an education bill to be named after Kennedy, D-Mass., who was absent and fighting brain cancer. It was a tribute to Kennedy's slain brother, President John F. Kennedy.

And perhaps the loudest applause went to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, also being treated for cancer, as she made her way slowly to her seat.


Tsk-tsk. Twittering while the president is addressing a joint session of Congress? While you're in the same room with him? Yep. Dozens of members of Congress did just that during Obama's speech Tuesday night.

Mostly, they outlined favorite lines -- "Americans are not quitters" being a popular one.

But snark doesn't always play well, as one lawmaker apparently found out.


"Let's do whatever proves necessary? Again he expresses no governing or guiding principles," Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, tweeted during the speech.


"Hold onto your wallet, America," he continued.

Toward the end, he concluded, "We are at war -- seems to me honoring our troops should come on page one rather than at the end of the speech."

But whoops, it's all about bipartisanship, people. And covering for oneself.

"This is a great privilege to be here and I will try hard to find ways to work together while preserving my core principles," Culberson wrote moments later.

[Associated Press; By LAURIE KELLMAN]

Associated Press photographer Pablo Martinez Monsivais contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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