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Ill. senator appears to survive Blagojevich furor

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[March 04, 2009]  SPRINGFIELD (AP) -- Roland Burris seems to have weathered the storm. Fellow Democrats are no longer demanding his resignation. The new Illinois governor has stopped calling for a special election to replace him. And party leaders who control the Senate and Illinois Legislature are reluctant to risk losing his seat to Republicans.

"He's not going to go anywhere. I'm convinced of that," said congressman Phil Hare, one of the first Illinois Democrats to call for Burris to step down.

Burris has been under intense scrutiny because of the circumstances of his appointment by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and for changing his story about it multiple times.

But Burris has refused even to discuss resignation, showing some of the same defiance displayed by Blagojevich. The fledgling senator has endured in part by clamming up and letting supporters portray the issue in racial terms.

A Burris strategist has encouraged black leaders to rally around the only black member of the Senate. The group has made clear that white Illinois politicians will pay a price for trying to oust Burris, who is serving the remainder of Barack Obama's term, which runs through 2010.

"We're strong in our position because we want Roland Burris to remain in this seat until this term is over," Chicago Alderman Ed Smith said after meeting with the Illinois governor this week.


The approach seems to be working.

Gov. Pat Quinn dropped his call for rewriting state law to remove Burris. State legislative leaders have put the issue on the back burner. Senate leaders want to change the subject.

"We really ought to switch channels here to something that people really care about," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

That's quite a switch from just a few weeks ago, when Burris' political life seemed to be hanging by a thread.

Durbin, along with other politicians from both parties, had urged Burris to resign. The Senate ethics committee began looking into his conduct. Newspaper editorials called on him to step down or be replaced.

Some Illinois lawmakers, joined briefly by Quinn, proposed legislation to end Burris' temporary appointment to the Senate and pick a replacement through a special election -- a move that would have guaranteed painful legal and political battles.

But the fact is, there's little way to force out a senator who has decided to stay. Just look at Larry Craig of Idaho, who refused to resign after being accused of soliciting sex in an airport bathroom, or David Vitter of Louisiana, who is still in office despite his name appearing in the phone records of a Washington prostitute.

Even if the Senate Ethics Committee were to find something damaging, there's no realistic chance the Senate would expel him -- that has not happened since the Civil War.

Blagojevich appointed Burris just before being kicked out of office for mismanagement and allegations that he tried to benefit from his power to name Obama's successor in the Senate.

Durbin and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed to seat Burris if he gave a full accounting of his Blagojevich contacts to the Illinois House committee that was considering impeachment.

Burris gave the committee an affidavit denying any discussion with Blagojevich's aides before being offered the seat. But when he testified, Burris acknowledged talking to one of Blagojevich's friends and informal advisers about it.

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Burris did not admit talking to anyone else and said he could not recall any other contacts.

Then after he was sworn in, Burris released another affidavit, this time acknowledging he had talked to several Blagojevich advisers about his interest in the seat. Soon after, talking to reporters, he said he had been asked to help raise campaign money for the governor and that he tried to find people willing to donate but failed.

Then he stopped answering questions, letting others speak on his behalf.

A longtime Burris aide, Delmarie Cobb, circulated talking points to black leaders in Chicago. She urged them to send the message to white politicians that "this isn't a good time to make enemies of the black community."

Officially, Burris isn't endorsing the idea that his situation should be seen in racial terms. "Sen. Burris was appointed and seated through a legal process, not a racial one," said spokesman Jim O'Connor.

In the meantime, Burris is emphasizing the routine of Senate business: attending a hearing of the Armed Services Committee, meeting with visitors from Illinois, presiding over the chamber.

Still, it may be a leap from Burris staying in office to becoming an effective senator, said David Bositis, a senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

"He's survived so far, but ... what is it he's accomplished?" Bositis said. "Basically all he's accomplished so far are things that are about him. His survival. Nobody at the present moment in time wants to read about anything except things that are being done that are going to advance the public interest. He's not doing that."

[Associated Press; By CHRISTOPHER WILLS]

Associated Press writers Deanna Bellandi in Chicago and Henry C. Jackson in Washington 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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