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The Trouble With Harry

Dana Milbank reminds us that it wasn’t only Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who had to cave on Roland Burris’s admission to the U.S. Senate — there was the President-elect, too. Like Reid, Barack Obama had vowed that Burris would not take his seat. It was just last week that the Chicago Sun-Times reported:

“Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat,” Obama said in a statement. “The best resolution would be for the governor to resign his office and allow a lawful and appropriate process of succession.”

President-elect Obama then beat a hasty retreat on the Burris lockout:

Any last trace of resistance to Burris vanished yesterday morning, when Obama, who last week agreed with the decision to exclude the senator-designate, dropped his opposition.

That raises a question: why in the world did the President-elect get roped into trying to keep Burris out of the Senate? It’s bad enough he’s been grilled by the FBI, his chief of staff is on tape with Blago and Blago’s chief of staff, and he supported the state Democratic pols in their objection to a special-election bill (which would have preempted the Burris appointment). He’s far too involved in Blago-gate and its potential fall-out already–the unfortunate result of undue tolerance for his fellow Democrats’ shenanigans.

Was it necessary then, to ride to Harry Reid’s defense in trying to spare the Senate Democrats from the indignity of having the “Senator from Blago” haunt them for the next two years? After all, the President-elect is a Constitutional-law scholar who should know Reid was up against Powell v. McCormack. Both legally and politically President-elect Obama should have seen it was a losing hand.

And it’s not just conservatives who are mystified by the President-elect’s misstep. Howard Fineman writes:

Obama made it clear that he didn’t want the kindly but inconsequential Illinois politician to be his U.S. Senate replacement, because Burris had been chosen by the allegedly corrupt and recently arrested Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But Burris would not go quietly, and he has turned his week into a farce that obliterated what little majesty there might have been in the opening of the 111th Congress. More important, it looks like Democratic leaders (like “martial music,” an oxymoron) are going to cave, and seat Burris anyway after several days of standing in the schoolhouse door. They look dumb and Obama looks weak. Not a good pregame warmup.

Going forward, President-elect Obama will need to assess just how tightly he wants to tie himself to the goings-on at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. If he chooses to involve himself, he might be well advised to be on the side of reform, open elections, and ethical standards. He wants to weigh in on something? Suggest the Democrats dump Ways and Means Chair Rep. Charlie Rangel or send out word that Sen. Chris Dodd should be releasing his Countrywide loan information.

If, instead, he chooses to provide cover for his politically and ethically challenged Democratic colleagues, he better watch out. He’d be better off (if the Burris mess is any indication) figuring out what Harry Reid and company want — and then doing the opposite.


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