US Democrats begin talks to swear in Burris


In an abrupt switch, Democratic leaders began talks today to swear in Roland Burris, appointed by embattled Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to replace president-elect Barack Obama in the US Senate.

Amid pressure from other Democrats, including some black leaders, negotiations started a day after Mr Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, was barred from the Senate when he came to take the oath of office as the only black member of the 100-seat chamber.

"This was a positive meeting. It moved us forward," assistant senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin said after a 45-minute session with Burris and Senate majority leader Harry Reid in the US Capitol.

Senate Democratic leaders initially rejected Mr Blagojevich's appointment of Mr 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, Mr Reid said this week there was room for negotiations. Mr Burris has sworn under oath he committed no wrongdoing in accepting the governor's appointment.

"There was certainly no pay-to-play involved, because I don't have no money," Mr Burris told reporters today after meeting with Mr Durbin and Mr Reid.

Mr Obama, who had opposed the appointment, said today he was ready to work with Mr Burris.

"He's a fine public servant," Mr 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 to make sure that the people of Illinois and the people of the country are served."

Mr Burris would replace Mr Obama, who gave up the seat after being elected as the nation's first black president.

If Mr Burris is sworn in, as expected, he would increase Democrats' majority in the Senate to 58, their biggest since 1981.

The 41-member Congressional Black Caucus voted unanimously today in favor of Mr Burris being seated.

"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.

The Illinois Legislature is considering impeaching Mr Blagojevich, who was arrested by the FBI on December 9th and charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery. Mr Burris is to testify at an impeachment hearing today.

Mr Burris said he had received a phone call of support from former president Jimmy Carter.

Due to the corruption charges against Mr Blagojevich, the Illinois secretary of state has refused to certify his appointment of Mr Burris. The state's Supreme Court was to rule soon on whether he must do so for Mr Burris to be seated.

If the appointment is cleared, Mr Reid said Democrats could sent it to the Senate Rules Committee for a ruling.

Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said yesterday Mr Blagojevich had the right to make the appointment and Burris should be seated. Mr Reid said the full Senate may ultimately decide.

Republicans could invoke a procedural delay that would take 60 votes to end. Even if they do not block the appointment, Republicans could force a fierce debate.

They argue there should be a special election to fill the seat, giving them a chance to compete for it.