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Reid faces senatorial test — or two

The Blagojevich saga and seemingly never-ending Minnesota Senate contest will have more of an impact on the partisan tone and tenor of the upper chamber than the pending economic stimulus effort.
/ Source: National Journal

Nature abhors a vacuum, and there was a big one in Washington for the last couple of weeks. After all, you had one president about to check out and an incoming president still not officially checked in -- unless, of course, you count the future first family's stay at the Hay-Adams.

As such, the mini-drama involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate pick Roland Burris has hogged the spotlight -- even now that the long holiday lull is over and the president-elect is holding to an active public schedule.

I'll admit it: The Blagojevich presser on the eve of New Year's Eve was riveting. "Saturday Night Live" couldn't have done a better job. Even so, the Burris bluster isn't going to impact Barack Obama or grind the workings of the Senate to a halt. Obama's focused on pushing through his stimulus package by a big, bipartisan majority. One less Democrat in the Senate isn't going to imperil its fate.

Instead, this saga -- along with the seemingly never-ending Minnesota Senate contest between Norm Coleman and Al Franken -- will have more of an impact on the partisan tone and tenor of the upper chamber. And the person with the most control over what that will be is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

It's unclear if Senate Democrats knew what kind of potential legal pickle they were putting themselves in when they declared soon after Blagojevich's arrest on Dec. 9 that they would not seat anyone appointed by the embattled governor. To be sure, it seemed like the kind of threat that would scare off most politicians. Even Blagojevich's attorney said he doubted the governor would make an appointment. But Senate Democrats were ascribing rational behavior to a clearly irrational individual.

Now that Blagojevich has called Reid's bluff, and Burris is clearly willing to play along, Reid has hinted that he'd be open to some sort of compromise. One recently floated proposal would have Senate Democrats seat Burris on the condition that the 71-year-old agree not run in 2010. That, however, flies in the face of Reid's strongest argument: that the decision not to seat Burris was not based on political calculations, but on the sins of the appointer. If the argument is that any appointment made by Blagojevich is contaminated, how would making Burris a placeholder do anything to take away the taint? Plus, the whole concept of a placeholder is fraught with political danger. This is a deal that Burris is making with Reid, not the voters of Illinois. What kind of leverage do Senate Democrats have in making sure he keeps his word?

Reid's decision late Monday night to avoid a confrontation over seating Franken also suggests that he's willing to hold the line on Burris. One argument for seating Burris rested on a hypothetical double standard. After all, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has refused to sign the official certification for Burris, but Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also hasn't signed off on Franken -- which, by the way, state law says he can't do if there is an official legal challenge. So how could seating Franken be fair?

More important, seating Franken in the face of a very aggressive pushback from Senate Republicans, especially newly installed National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn, would likely poison the well for any future talk of bipartisan comity. To be sure, Coleman's legal challenge could mean that Minnesota is down one senator, potentially for many weeks. But with 57 or 58 other Democrats, Franken's absence isn't a majority-breaker. Plus, Democrats can now label Coleman and the GOP as sore losers and try to sway public opinion in the state.

In the end, it seems that the Burris issue may be in the hands of the Illinois legislature. If it can quickly push through the impeachment proceedings, the state's newest senator could be appointed by a "taint-free" lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn. Reports suggest that the state House is likely to vote as early as the end of this week or next.

Given that Quinn will likely run for re-election in '10, can he afford not to appoint a black candidate? Perhaps he is the one who could make the deal with Burris as a placeholder; then, in the end, Burris gets his seat, Reid holds his ground and Quinn looks like a peace broker.

Of course, this assumes that by the time this all happens, Burris has not become a national punch line. His behavior suggests that may be happening sooner than later.