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No recovery for Burris, political analysts say

Ill. senator again on the defensive

Senator Roland Burris faced the media yesterday during a tour of the University of Illinois. He is dealing with questions about his Senate appointment by former governor Rod Blagojevich. Senator Roland Burris faced the media yesterday during a tour of the University of Illinois. He is dealing with questions about his Senate appointment by former governor Rod Blagojevich. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
By Henry C. Jackson
Associated Press / May 28, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Tainted from the day he was appointed, Senator Roland Burris again finds himself denying any role in a pay-to-play scheme as newly revealed wiretaps show him begging for his Senate seat and offering to donate to the campaign of Illinois's ousted governor, Rod Blagojevich.

Burris repeatedly insists he did nothing wrong, telling reporters yesterday that his taped conversation with Blagojevich's brother, Robert, was the result of a misunderstanding. He said he was trying to placate the governor's brother because he wanted to win a Senate appointment.

Political observers say Burris's justifications aside, there's no recovery for his image.

"If anything, the tapes confirm the position he was in," said David Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

"Nothing Burris did or does was going to change his prospects," Bositis said. "Even if he kept his nose to the grindstone and worked hard and so forth, that wasn't going to make a difference."

Burris, 71, wanted the Senate seat as a crowning achievement, something to carve into his tombstone. Instead, it has made him a political pariah, viewed on Capitol Hill mainly as an oddity.

"People identify Burris with a governor who made multiple attempts to sell the Senate seat, and they say, 'Here's the guy who took it,' " said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar of US politics at American Enterprise Institute. "He can't win in that sense."

On the tapes, Burris is heard asking Blagojevich's brother to tell the governor that he would like to be appointed to the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. Burris then notes that it would look bad for him to raise money directly for Rod Blagojevich, so he promises to personally write the governor a check and take other actions to help the campaign.

The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating Burris, as is a state attorney in Illinois. When asked in a recent interview how the scandal back home has affected him, Burris made a sweeping gesture with his hands and literally brushed the matter aside.

"We've done some very serious and meaningful work," Burris said. "I've been a part of all that energy here, all that's helping people. And that's what I seek to do."

Burris casts himself as a team player, a loyal Democrat. He says Senate minutiae enthralls him and the briefing books that crowd his bedside table offer him a kind of peace. He ticks off key votes and points out that without him, Democrats would have one less Senate vote - and might not have enjoyed the successes they've highlighting after Obama's first few months.

"There's a lot to learn, and that's good - that's what I want," Burris said. "I am here to work. I am here to learn."

Burris doesn't have any close friends in the Senate, though he says he chats with every member he bumps into. Most conspicuous is his lack of a relationship with his Illinois colleague, Richard J. Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat. Durbin routinely takes new senators under his wing, but he has never been supportive of Burris's Senate aspirations - he told Burris it would be a bad idea to accept his appointment in the first place.

"As far as the relationship goes, I wouldn't say it's a bad one," said Joe Shoemaker, Durbin spokesman. "It's just not a very deep one."