Obama Stuck Between a Rod and a Hard Place

Barack Obama doesn’t need this, not right now.

Already, Obama’s Hawaiian vacation has been interrupted by news of an Israeli incursion into Gaza. He faces a mounting economic crisis even before he takes office.

And now, just as Obama was starting to distance himself from the machinations over filling his Senate seat, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s surprise pick is dragging him back in to the home-state mess – along with the kind of hard-edged racial politics Obama tries to avoid.

Blagojevich, who has been charged with attempting to sell the Senate seat, announced Tuesday he was tapping Roland Burris, the first African-American to win statewide election in Illinois and the closest thing in the state to a black elder statesman.

But Obama is backing efforts led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to block Burris, saying Blagojevich is too tainted by corruption charges to make the pick.

It’s not clear Reid can block Burris. But Obama’s bigger headache could come from a longtime South Side congressman and one-time rival – Rep. Bobby Rush – who is unmistakably daring officials not to block the ascension of an African-American to replace Obama.

“I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee while you castigate the appointer,” Rush said at Blagojevich’s news conference. “Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the U.S. Senate.”

Until now, Obama and other Democrats have been able to isolate Blagojevich. But Rush’s blessing leaves Obama caught between the Senate leadership and two leading, old-guard African-Americans politicians in his home state.

Rush’s move isn’t the first time he’s made life difficult for Obama. The president-elect ran in a primary against the veteran congressman in 2000. Rush easily held his seat, winning 61-30 and temporarily sidetracking then state Sen. Obama’s ambitions.

In that campaign for a seat on Chicago’s heavily black South Side, Rush, a Baptist minister and former Black Panther, mixed a familiar message of race, class, and generation of the sort that is often used by older African-Americans against upstart primary rivals.

“Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it,” Rush said to a Chicago paper at the time.

Democrats familiar with Obama’s thinking suggest that he’ll stay as quiet as possible about the matter. The president-elect believes the Senate is well within its bounds not to seat Burris that it would be difficult for him to work effectively under the cloud that would come with being appointed by a governor facing federal charges.

One thing could short-circuit the controversy - Jesse White, the Illinois secretary of state, said he will not certify Burris as the replacement for Obama’s seat. White is an African-American.

For his part, Burris said it’s inconceivable that the state of Illinois should start the new Congress “shorthanded,” with just one senator.

Burris also said he has “no relationship” to charges that Blagojevich tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat for personal gain and said of the governor, “In this legal process, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty.”

“I ask the people of Illinois to place the same faith and trust in me as they have in the past,” said Burris, 71, who has promised to serve the remaining two years of the Senate term and not run for reelection. 

Burris was the first African American to be elected to statewide office in Illinois, serving as comptroller from 1979 to 1991 and as attorney general from 1991 to 1995.

He also ran against Blagojevich for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002 – winning the support of much of Illinois African-American political establishment, including then-state senator Barack Obama, who attended Burris’s press conference announcing his bid.

Burris has given $4,500 to Blagojevich’s gubernatorial campaigns since 2004, according to Illinois state records.

“When Blagojevich beat me, I told Barack to get on board with him,” Burris said told the Washington Post earlier this month. “It was kind of like swallowing his pride a little bit, because he didn't really see that they had anything in common.”

Another complication in the selection is that Burris is a registered lobbyist in Illinois and Washington, D.C. His Chicago-based firm, Burris & Lebed, is registered in Springfield to represent clients ranging from Comcast to the Illinois Funeral Directors Association. In 2007, the firm was also registered to represent the Illinois Association of Mortgage Bankers. The firm is registered in both Springfield and Washington to represent MicroSun Technologies LLC, an Illinois-based maker of battery and power supplies.

The firm also once represented the Ho-Chunk Nation, a Wisconsin-based Indian tribe. The Ho-Chunks, formerly known as the Winnebagos, operate numerous casinos in Wisconsin and hired Burris’s firm in 2003 to help them lobby to build one on property they purchased in suburban Chicago. The plan has became controversial, with local residents opposing the development. The matter now is in front of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Illinois state lobbying records show that Burris represented the tribe from 2003-2005.

In the same period, Burris also had another controversial client: the Richmond, Va.-based Council of Independent Tobacco Manufacturers of America, otherwise known as “Small Tobacco.” CITMA is a trade association comprised of local tobacco makers.

Burris’ lobbying partner is Fred Lebed, a veteran Democratic political operative who once served as executive director of the Cook County party and has also held a number of state government posts.

Blagojevich has been under pressure to resign from office, or at least relinquish his gubernatorial authority to fill Senate vacancies. He has remained in office, however, as he fights a federal corruption investigation and a legislative effort to impeach him.

The two-term governor has denied any wrongdoing.

It’s unclear whether Reid has the power to block Burris’ appointment. Senate leaders discussed the impending announcement on a conference call Tuesday afternoon.

John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a Politico Ideas piece this month that the Senate doesn’t have the power to reject the appointment.

“The Senate would have little recourse but to seat Blagojevich, as he meets the minimum constitutional qualifications for office,” Fortier wrote of the possibility that the governor might appoint himself. “But after seating Blagojevich, the Senate could then expel him by a two-thirds vote. The seat would be vacant again, and the new governor could make an appointment. Or by then, the Legislature might have changed the law to do away with appointments, in which case the seat would sit vacant until a special election was held.

In announcing the appointment Tuesday, Blagojevich may have surprised even his lawyer, who had said earlier that the governor did not plan to defy the Senate leaders and impose an Obama successor on them.

Blagojevich's lawyer, Ed Genson, had told a news conference Dec. 17 that the governor did not plan to try to make the appointment. "Harry Reid said that they're not going to accept anybody, so why would he do that?" Genson said.

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