Biden's right at home, Burris gets denied

Image: Joe Biden is sworn into Senaate
Sen. Joe Biden is sworn in by Vice President Dick Cheney as Biden's wife Jill holds the Bible during a reenactment ceremony at the Capitol Tuesday.Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images
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Sen. Joe Biden is still a member of the club; Roland Burris isn’t.

Not yet anyway.

But Burris was the clear celebrity Tuesday — and got a larger and more frantic press scrum — at the opening of the 111th Congress.

Rebuffed by Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson, all Burris could do was head to an outside press venue — the cold and muddy “swamp” across from the Russell Senate Office building.

That's where he told a rain-sodden phalanx of television camera crews and reporters that he may file a lawsuit to get the seat — if negotiation can't leverage it out of an unwilling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Back indoors where it was warm and dry, freshman House members and senators reveled in the giddy ebullience of being sworn in.

Family day at the Capitol
For the newly elected, it can feel like the first day of high school or college — or perhaps even their wedding day. Members’ mothers and fathers and children milled all over the halls outside the Senate and House chambers.

Members kept losing their spouses or kids, and chiefs of staff kept fretting over the possibility of losing their bosses.

On the House side, members sauntered into the Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor to pick up their voting cards and member pins.

Veteran Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, escorting freshman Idaho Democrat Walt Minnick, wisecracked to one of the clerical staff who manned the credentials tables, “We’re from Idaho; can you tell me where the S’s are?”

A few minutes before taking his oath, freshman Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., went on to the House floor with his teenaged daughter. As they came through the door to the lobby he anxiously asked her, “Where’s your mother?”

Connolly, the chairman of the Fairfax County, Virginia, Board of Supervisors for the past five years, said he was thinking about the responsibility weighing on him as a new member and “the gravity of the economic situation. There are a lot of parallels between this and the Congress that came into being in 1933.”

A savvy freshman, he then spotted Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas and paid homage to him, greeting him with a hearty “Mr. Chairman!”

(Ortiz is chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee.)

Freshman focuses on Dulles
After courting Ortiz, Connolly turned back and showed more savvy.

His district is near Dulles Airport, which prompted the question on whether he is working on a way to get from downtown Washington to Dulles, cheaply and quickly.

“Dulles rail?” he laughed knowingly, as if to say, “is the sky blue?”

“That’s been my top priority for 14 years and it will continue to be my top transportation priority,” he said. And getting federal money to build a rail connector to Dulles fits neatly into the infrastructure theme of the opening of the Obama era, he said.

A few minutes later over on the Senate side, Biden took his oath of office from the man he will succeed as vice president, Dick Cheney.

Biden couldn’t resist an impromptu scrum with his pals in the Capitol press corps.

On the Obama team not notifying Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein of Leon Panetta’s nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency, Biden said, “I’m still a Senate man. And I still think this way. I think it’s always good to talk to the requisite members of Congress.”

He added, “I think it was just a mistake” that someone on Team Obama failed to pick up the phone and notify Feinstein.

In his final trip as a senator, Biden is going to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan “to get a sort of baseline…It is very important that we have a sort of an independent baseline as to where things stand. There are an awful lot of reports that are being filed by [Gen. David] Petraeus and the State Department and the White House — and I am anxious to see them, as is the president-elect — but I also wanted to see first hand and to start off with a baseline.”

Biden seemed to love the familiar crush of reporters, swarming around him and tripping all over each other as they edged, rugby-style, down the hall.

Burris gets mobbed
Not so comfortable was Burris as he entered the Capitol mobbed by television camera crews and still photographers furiously backpedaling.

Looking frail and wary, Burris cowered inside a protective cordon of his lawyers and aides as they pushed back the shoving crews and reporters.

“Members of the media, my name is Roland Burris, junior senator from the state of Illinois,” Burris said later at his outdoor press conference. “I presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate and was advised that my credentials were not in order.”

He added, “I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation. I will now consult with my attorneys and we will determine what our next step will be.”

Burris attorney Timothy Wright told reporters the options included filing a suit in federal district court in Washington and to continue negotiating with Senate leaders “to perhaps get them to reverse themselves.”

Wright and his fellow attorneys referred to Burris as “Sen. Burris” and “the senator.”

Fred Thompson returns
Meanwhilein the Senate chamber, the familiar ritual seen every two years played itself out as a packed gallery filled with family members and supporters looked down on the scene.

The president-elect wasn’t there, of course, but plenty of former presidential contenders and former senators were: ex-senators Howard Baker and Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

Thompson, who had a short stint as a GOP presidential contender last year, walked over to Sen. John McCain’s desk and gave him a huge hug.

Lingering at the back of the chamber was former Majority Leader Tom Daschle — soon to be Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services. He was there to see his friend Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., sworn in.

Fellow senators ribbed Biden, as he waited to take his oath, about the super-sized family Bible he had brought with him.

But by far the most starry-eyed of the freshman was Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

“It’s an incredible life opportunity to join this group in the Senate. I was here as an intern when I was 19 for Sen. (Mark) Hatfield (in 1976). To be back in the chamber now filling his seat, it’s an incredible feeling, a journey I never expected to be able to take.”

Lobbyists on hand
Circulating near Merkley were lobbyists Steve Elmendorf — a reliable Capitol fixture on almost any given day — and former Senate Majority Leader, now lobbyist, Trent Lott.

Lott said he has dropped by to witness the swearing-in of a new House member, Gregg Harper, a Mississippi friend of his.

Lott showed off his custom-made tie to reporters — a design featuring rows and rows of Capitol domes and a “Lott-Breaux” label on the reverse side. Former Louisiana Democratic senator John Breaux is Lott's partner in their lobbying firm.

But Lott joked that he couldn’t give any ties to reporters or members of the Senate, due to ethics rules. “No gifts. Nothing!”

Lott, who started his career as a House member in 1973, said “You never forget that first swearing in and all the children on the floor of the House. I remember when I went to raise my hand to be sworn in, he was hanging on my arm and I could barely get my arm raised. He was causing trouble, as he is to this day.”

The “he” Lott referred to was his son, Chet, standing next to him. Chet, a clinging infant in 1973, is today, like his dad, a lobbyist.