Senate Democrats struggled to avert a showdown steeped in race and corruption Monday as a defiant Roland Burris declared, "I'm a United States senator" despite boiling controversy over his appointment to President-elect Barack Obama's seat in Congress.
Several officials said it was out of the question that Burris would be sworn into office on Tuesday when other new lawmakers take the oath of office. The officials cited incomplete paperwork, but the dispute was far deeper than that. Burris was named last week by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who faces charges of having attempted to sell the seat.
Burris has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but Senate Democrats expressed the hope that the veteran Illinois Democrat would not violate protocol by attempting to walk uninvited into the chamber. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to address the matter publicly.
At the same time, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appeared to leave open the possibility of a compromise after having failed to persuade Blagojevich to leave the seat vacant. Burris is scheduled to meet privately on Wednesday with the majority leader in his office a few paces off the Senate floor.
Burris, who is black, downplayed the issue of race at a news conference before boarding a flight from Chicago to Washington — even though supporters have given it prominence.
"I cannot control my supporters. I have never in my life, in all my years of being elected to office, thought anything about race," he said.
As for Senate Democratic leaders, thus far unwilling to allow him to be seated, he said, "I am a United States senator. They can't stop me from doing my senatorial duties."
In fact, he is not, and cannot be unless he is administered the oath of office.
Democrats privately expressed concern that Burris would not be able to hold the seat in a special election that must be held in 2010. Reid has denied that political calculations are involved, but one Democratic official suggested that one potential outcome would be for Burris to be seated and pledge to retire in 2010.
Burris sidestepped the issue at his news conference, saying, "I can't negotiate in the press."
The Illinois seat was one of two in dispute on the eve of the ceremonial opening of the new Congress.
In Minnesota, the state Canvassing Board certified results showing Democrat Al Franken winning a recount over Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, but a legal challenge probably will keep that race in limbo for now.
Despite losing several seats last November, Senate Republicans have the ability to block any quick attempt by Democrats to allow Franken to be sworn in, and it was not clear whether Reid intended to press the matter on Tuesday. Coleman's term has expired, meaning Minnesota, like Illinois, could be represented by only one senator for an undetermined period.
Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky arranged an early evening meeting to discuss the two seats.
The uncertain Illinois script played out as a federal judge granted prosecutors more time to seek a formal indictment of Blagojevich, and state lawmakers marched methodically toward impeachment proceedings that could result in his removal from office. He was arrested last year and charged with trying to sell Obama's seat.
Blagojevich appointed Burris to fill take Obama's former Senate seat last week, defying the wishes of Senate Democrats who had warned that anyone he named would be tainted by association. His selection of the 71-year-old former officeholder instantly exposed rifts among Democrats, evident at a send-off Burris received in a Chicago church on Sunday night.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., called the Senate "last bastion of plantation politics," and said blacks had been "excluded systematically for too long."
There were mounting legal complications, as well.
While Blagojevich has signed formal appointments papers, Jesse White, the Illinois secretary of state, has not, and Senate rules require that signature.
Burris, in turn, has gone to court hoping to win an order for White to sign the necessary paperwork, and has also threatened to sue to take his seat in the Senate.
"We are hoping and praying that they will not be able to deny what the Lord has ordained," Burris said Sunday night.
After first publicly urging Blagojevich not to try and fill Obama's seat, Reid spoke in conciliatory terms on Sunday. "I'm an old trial lawyer," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "There's always room to negotiate."
Reid also said that if Blagojevich leaves office and his replacement, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, decides to appoint Burris, "that would be fine."