Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 | 2 a.m.
It seemed so simple on election night, the way Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suddenly found himself about to lead the largest Democratic majority in the Senate since the Carter administration.
One by one in November, seats fell into Democratic hands. Barack Obama became the president-elect and Reid’s slim 51-seat majority in days swelled to 58, just a couple shy of the number needed to overcome a filibuster that can block legislation.
Yet the 111th Congress begins Monday with at least two Senate seats undecided, and Reid finds himself in the dicey position of deciding who else gets to join the club of 100.
A new era in Washington is unfolding with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, but the unsettled seats in Illinois and Minnesota are providing postgame drama and setting a tone for the way forward.
In the case of Illinois, Reid has vowed to block Roland Burris, the state’s former attorney general who was tapped by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill out President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate term — even after the governor was alleged to have tried to sell the seat to others for personal gain.
Burris had indicated he may show up at Tuesday’s swearing in of new senators, but Reid and his fellow Democratic senators believe no appointment by the governor — even of a candidate as worthy as Burris — could be made taint-free. (On Saturday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that days before the governor’s arrest, Reid called Blagojevich to suggest some names and reject others, including two sitting congressmen he thought were not electable. Reid’s office said the call was routine — as Reid had called other governors with open Senate seats.)
In Minnesota, Reid could provisionally seat Al Franken, the comedian who is 50 votes ahead of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in the ongoing Minnesota recount. Republicans would be furious if Reid welcomed the Democrat as ballot challenges remain.
The decisions Reid makes this week could become a lasting measure of his tenure as majority leader — and his relationship with the new president.
When Reid took his victory lap on election night, it was a modest jog. With little bravado, Reid simply pledged to lead this new majority “very carefully.”
But then Reid set off alarms when he hinted early on he may invoke the powers given to Congress in the Constitution to be the final arbiter of the unresolved seats.
In the Minnesota race, when Coleman led Franken by a few hundred votes after initial ballots were counted, Reid pressed to ensure that “no voter was disenfranchised.” A recount was begun.
The constitutional provisions rose to new prominence after all 50 Democratic senators signed a letter urging Blagojevich to resign so a successor could be named and the seat filled without the air of impropriety.
“Any appointment by you would raise serious questions,” the senators wrote. No Democrat wants the scandal in Illinois to be an ethical drag on the party nationally in Washington.
But Blagojevich snubbed Reid last week and appointed Burris — daring congressional leaders to deny a black lawmaker a seat in the Senate, where no blacks now serve.
Obama stepped into the debate to back up Reid and his fellow Democrats, saying the Burris appointment should not stand.
Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University who writes extensively on Congress, said Obama’s unusual decision to insert himself into the inner workings of the Senate was “pretty provocative.”
“Traditionally presidents stay out of these kinds of congressional decisions, at least in public,” Zelizer wrote by e-mail.
Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes the Senate for the Cook Political Report, reminds that Obama similarly jumped into the postelection debate over whether Reid should punish Independent Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman for having supported Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
Although many Democrats wanted Lieberman stripped of his committee chairmanship, Obama successfully urged that cooler heads prevail, and Lieberman retained his post.
“What an interesting relationship this is going to be,” Duffy said. “Obama didn’t have to do this. He could have said this isn’t up to me. He went, in some ways, to Reid’s rescue.”
Scholars are debating whether Reid has the power to deny Burris the seat under the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 5. Perhaps it won’t come to that showdown, if Burris declines to show up on Tuesday.
The easiest solution would be to call a special election. But because some believe Republicans have a decent shot at winning the Democratic-held seat, Democrats (at least those in Washington) appear unwilling to take that chance.
So Reid is left in the potentially incongruous position of calling for every vote to be counted in Minnesota while maneuvering in ways that could avoid an election in Illinois.
Burdett Loomis, who studies Congress as a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Democrats need to be mindful not to overreach in deciding the fate of the Senate seats in a way that leaves them open to complaints of unfairness.
The country is hungry for change, Loomis said, and voters elected Obama in a landslide because they want a new era in Washington that produces results, especially for the grave economic conditions facing the nation. (Nevada’s jobless rate hit 8 percent last month.)
What will be key, Loomis said, is for Reid to resolve the Senate seat issues without drama, and focus on the business of governing.
Reid faces his own reelection fight in 2010 and Congress, with its dismal approval rating, has the opportunity to improve its standing if Obama is able to deliver — just as with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson.
“No matter what happens in Illinois or Minnesota, they’re going to be judged how they come out of the box,” Loomis said. “Reid — this is a big chance for him ... The congressional leadership rises and falls on how well the executive does.”