On Capitol Hill, Dems Dither, Squabble, Fall Apart; Republicans Watch.

by Byron York

A very strange day in the Senate.

On December 10, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein joined every other senator of her party in signing a letter to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “We write to insist that you step down and…under no circumstances make an appointment to fill the vacant Illinois Senate seat,” the letter said. If Blagojevich ignored their warning, Feinstein and the other Democrats warned, “we would be forced to exercise our Constitutional authority under Article I, Section 5, to determine whether such a person should be seated.”

That was then. Now Roland Burris is in Washington. And what Feinstein and her colleagues saw Tuesday was a reasonable-sounding man turned away, in the rain and cold, by the Democratic authorities in the U.S. Capitol. Stonewalled by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Burris responded in pitch-perfect tone. “I presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate,” Burris told reporters. “I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation.”

The sight of the Senate slamming the door in the face of a qualified man who would also be its only black member was apparently too much for some Democrats to stand. Some began to consider ways to accommodate Burris. Perhaps he could be seated if he promised not to run for the seat on his own in 2010. Or perhaps he could just be seated with no restrictions. By the end of the day, Feinstein, who just happens to be chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which would likely consider Burris’s plight, made a statement that was quite different from that December 10 letter.

“Does [Blagojevich] have the power, under law, to make the appointment?” Feinstein wondered aloud. “The answer is yes. If you don’t seat Mr. Burris, it has ramifications for gubernatorial appointments all over America. Mr. Burris is a senior, experienced politician. He has been attorney general, he has been controller, and he is very well-respected. I am hopeful that this will be settled.”

As Democrats cracked on the Burris question, Republicans mostly watched. And smiled — to themselves. “More drama,” one wrote to me as the Feinstein news broke. Burris’s appearance was “brilliant stagecraft, if it was all on purpose,” the Republican continued. “He looked sad and cold, wrapped his coat around himself at one point. It was evocative of the 1960s, just in color — a black man being turned away.”

For much of the day, Republicans, who haven’t had much to enjoy lately, felt the satisfaction of watching a mess that was completely someone else’s. “It’s not our problem,” the Republican told me. “We would like a special election, but we have zero ability to make it happen.” In addition to enjoying seeing Democrats squirm, Republicans also believe the public is, at least narrowly, on their side. A new Gallup poll cited by the GOP shows 52 percent of those surveyed nationally believe the best way to fill the Senate vacancy is to hold a special election. Broken down by party, 56 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Democrats favor a special election. So look for Republicans to stay firm in their support of an election — and continue to enjoy the Democrats’ Burris dilemma.

And to continue to jab at Reid. On Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn, in his role as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called for the public release of an apparently wiretapped conversation between Reid and Blagojevich in which Reid reportedly expressed opposition to three black Senate possibilities, Reps. Danny Davis and Jesse Jackson Jr. and State Sen. Emil Jones, because they were “unelectable.” Reid acknowledges speaking to the governor and says he believes that conversation was recorded as part of the federal investigation into Blagojevich. But on Meet the Press Sunday, Reid said he couldn’t remember what was said in the conversation, other than “generalities.”

Cue Cornyn. “The controversy surrounding the Illinois Senate seat cries out for transparency and public disclosure,” the Republican said Tuesday morning. “Sen. Reid led the charge against denying the people of Illinois a voice in deciding their next U.S. senator through a special election. Today, he chose not to seat the governor’s appointee, Roland Burris. While I agree that this selection process has been tainted and Mr. Burris should not be seated, I would expect Sen. Reid would also agree that more light needs to be shined on this selection process. Voters in Illinois deserve to know all of the details behind the deal-making to choose their next senator.”

You could almost see Cornyn smile as you read the statement. Look for more, if the Burris saga continues. It’s not their problem.

Meanwhile, the fate of Norm Coleman is a Republican problem, but nobody in Washington can do much about it. There’s not much hope for Coleman in the Senate GOP, but Republicans still bristle when they hear Reid trying to rush the Minnesotan to the door. On Tuesday, Reid referred to Coleman as a “former senator,” spurring Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to take the floor with a rebuttal. “The only people who have pronounced the Minnesota Senate race over are Washington Democrats, and the candidate who is the current custodian of the most votes,” McConnell said. “The Senate race in Minnesota will be determined by Minnesotans, not senators in Washington.”

Even though they expect to lose the excruciatingly close race with Al Franken, Republicans took some comfort in an editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune supporting Coleman’s decision to contest the results of the statewide recount. “Coleman is justified in going to court,” the paper wrote on Monday. “We give him that nod not because we believe that the Canvassing Board has erred…But as several of the judges who sit on the board pointed out during their proceedings, there’s only so much that an administrative, vote-counting body can do…Courts alone have the legal standing to do those things. That makes the judicial branch best suited to pass judgment on which remaining rejected absentee ballots should be counted. The courts can better determine whether some ballots were double-counted, as the Coleman campaign claims. They can better decide how or whether the 133 missing ballots in Minneapolis should be counted.”

So now the court in Minnesota will do so. “There are still opportunities” for Coleman, one Republican told me. But not a lot of hope.