The man who would be senator from Illinois learned an old lesson today: It ain't for nothin' that they herald the United States Senate as the world's most exclusive club.
Roland Burris, calmly declaring himself the "junior senator from Illinois," showed up to claim the seat created by the departure of President-elect Barack Obama.
But the scandal surrounding Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who appointed a successor after being slapped with federal charges, left the 71-year-old Burris spurned like a bridegroom waiting at the altar. That happened when he tried to present his credentials to the secretary of the Senate, hoping to enter the Senate chamber and take the oath of office.
Burris—"Senator" to his three lawyers but "Mister" to many fellow Dems—was left the improbable star of a half-hour minidrama that television dubbed Senate Showdown hours before the cameras began rolling at 10:27 a.m.
The former attorney general of Illinois and his entourage were met by Terry Gainer, the Senate sergeant-at-arms. "Who's that?" a puzzled Capitol visitor asked as a wild crowd of reporters chased after the poised, purposeful Burris.
The man of the half-hour got the brushoff inside Room S312, the office of the secretary of the Senate, where a crush of reporters was held at bay. Behind the closed doors of an elevator, a Burris aide exhaled. "Oh, my God," he said. "I've seen some pretty serious media gangbangs but not like that."
The reason given for Burris's rejection: His certificate of appointment did not conform to Senate rules.
Burris, exiting the secretary's office minutes later as the press gave chase, left the Capitol under raw, rainy skies, shielded under a red-and-white umbrella held aloft by an associate. Cops hollered orders to keep the press in line. Sirens blared. Dark caravans of SUVs sped up and deposited dignitaries, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, on hand to swear in new senators whose papers were in order.
Burris's next destination was across Constitution Avenue at a muddy area famously known for Senate press conferences and nicknamed "the swamp." Unceremoniously, one reporter slipped in the muck before the man of the half-hour arrived.
With cameras and microphones recording his every word, Burris first answered the curious visitor's question. He stated his name. Then he pronounced himself the junior senator from Illinois but said he was advised that his credentials were not in order and that he would not be allowed on the Senate floor.
Burris said that he didn't want a confrontation and that the next steps in this legal and political fight were yet to be determined. He'll meet tomorrow morning with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The bizarre opening-day spectacle is tinged in race, because Burris is African-American. Should he prevail in his quest, he would be the only black in the Senate, which was slammed as "the last bastion of plantation America" by one close ally, Illinois House Democrat Bobby Rush.
One of Burris's attorneys, William Jeffress of Washington, D.C., said the legal team might ask the U.S. District Court to grant a declaratory judgment that he is the duly appointed senator from Illinois.
Reid, speaking from the Senate floor after Burris departed, said he wants "no cloud of doubt" over the appointment. He noted that a court case is underway in Illinois over the Burris appointment and that the Illinois General Assembly soon would begin impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich.
The Burris appointment has been drenched in controversy. It came after federal authorities accused Blagojevich of trying to sell the Senate seat and charged him with conspiring to commit fraud and soliciting bribery.
Republicans led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have called for a special election in Illinois—which would open the prospect of Obama's seat falling into GOP hands. "The process is too tainted. There should be a special election," Donald Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, said after Burris departed.
Talking about tomorrow's meeting, Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, said the majority leader would "sit down and listen to what Mr. Burris has to say." Manley added: "We're in a holding pattern for a little bit."
Stay tuned, then. While Burris has not yet captured Obama's seat, for a few fleeting minutes before the noon start time of the 111th Congress, the man of the half-hour did get this: a brief taste of star power.