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Roland Burris Defends Appointment to Senate by Embattled Blagojevich

January 2, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's pick for Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat, Roland Burris, plans to take office next week despite objections from Senate leaders. Burris discusses the controversy surrounding his appointment with Ray Suarez.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: It was a surprise to many when embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich named former state Attorney General Roland Burris to fill President-elect Obama’s vacant Senate seat, and it’s still unclear whether Mr. Burris will be sworn in alongside the new class of senators next week.

To address some of the questions swirling around this appointment, Roland Burris joins us now from Chicago.

Welcome to the program, sir.

ROLAND BURRIS, Senator-designate, Illinois: Thank you very much, Ray. I appreciate the opportunity.

RAY SUAREZ: At this moment as we speak, are you the junior senator from Illinois?

ROLAND BURRIS: That is correct, Ray. The governor’s appointment is legal, and I am the junior senator for the state of Illinois.

RAY SUAREZ: Will you present yourself Monday to take that seat on the Senate floor?

ROLAND BURRIS: Well, the process will be this. We will travel to Washington on Monday. We will appear at the Senate chambers on Tuesday when the Senate is in open session. I will more than likely be denied entry, and then I will leave.

Senate rejects Blagojevich's choice

Roland Burris
Senator-designate, Illinois
What they didn't take into consideration, Ray, is the fact that the governor is the governor. He has a constitutional and legal authority to appoint a replacement for the United States Senate when there is a vacancy.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Harry Reid has said from the beginning that -- and now the entire Democratic caucus has confirmed -- that you should not be seated as a senator from Illinois. Have you already made plans in response to this? Has anybody from the caucus told you that directly?

ROLAND BURRIS: No, I've been in contact with our senior senator, who's the number-two person in the United States Senate, Dick Durbin, and he's indicated that, you know, that what happened then, you know, 50 senators did sign a letter and said that they would not accept anyone that was appointed by Blagojevich.

What they didn't take into consideration, Ray, is the fact that the governor is the governor. He has a constitutional and legal authority to appoint a replacement for the United States Senate when there is a vacancy.

And for them to summarily say that they aren't going to seat that person does not withstand all of the precedents and the law.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you've been trying to separate yourself from the governor, but can you really do that in a case where it is a question about this very seat that they view as disqualifying the governor from making you as a pick?

ROLAND BURRIS: I most certainly can separate myself from the governor. The governor did his responsibility. He found a qualified person to appoint, and he appointed me. That has no reflection on me and the governor's problems.

He has problems, without a doubt, and they're serious problems. If those allegations are proven to be true against the governor, then, you know, he will be in serious trouble. That in no way impacts me. There's no such thing as a tainted appointment by a chief executive who has the constitutional authority.

Take for instance, Ray, if the bill that he has signed as the governor. He's exercising his constitutional responsibilities and authority. One other example is with my good friend, President Clinton, was also impeached. He was still carrying on the duties and responsibility of the presidency.

There's no such thing as what they're talking about, in terms of withstanding the precedent and the law, of not seating someone because they do not like the person who did the appointing.

Blagojevich is still Governor

Roland Burris
Senator-designate, Illinois
He could be in trouble for not carrying out his constitutional responsibilities and leaving the seat vacant and the people of Illinois only had one senator.

RAY SUAREZ: But, again, Mr. Burris, the very complaint made against Gov. Blagojevich by the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois involves the appointment for this seat. Does that change the legal landscape at all for you?

ROLAND BURRIS: Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with it. The governor -- let me ask you this. Is he still the governor?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I guess -- not that it's a legal opinion for me, but he appears to be very much the governor at this point, yes.

ROLAND BURRIS: He's very much the governor. And he could be in trouble for not carrying out his constitutional responsibilities and leaving the seat vacant and the people of Illinois only had one senator. So he has a -- and it says, "The governor shall appoint a replacement."

So, you know, in terms of the responsibility, it has nothing to do with the condition of the governor who is making the appointment. It has nothing to do with that, just like him signing a bill that provides for whatever the contents of the bill -- the contents are in the bill. It has nothing to do with the condition of the governor.

And that's the point that we've been seeking to get across to all people who want to just drag this out with these hypotheticals and all these what-ifs. There are no what-ifs. The basic question is, is he the governor, number one? Does he have constitutional authority to appoint a vacancy, number two? Did he appoint a person, number three? And the fact, number four, that person is admicio the senator from the state.

Other candidates declined seat

Roland Burris
Senator-designate, Illinois
Their advice was certainly, Roland, you're qualified, you know this state, you spent 20 years in Illinois government, you've been elected four times as the state comptroller, three times as state comptroller, one time as attorney general.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you mentioned that you spoke to your Illinois colleague, Dick Durbin about this. Is there any forum, is there any opportunity for you to make the argument you just made to me and to our audience to the Senate leadership from your party?

ROLAND BURRIS: Well, that's what we will -- certainly we will be setting this up. And Sen. Durbin has attempted to try to arrange a meeting with me earlier with Majority Leader Reid.

But the schedule, his schedule is just too booked on Monday and Tuesday, so I will more than likely, if the senator can arrange it for us, will be meeting on Wednesday morning.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Burris, before I let you go, there were other aspirants for the seat who said that now they wouldn't take it if Gov. Blagojevich offered it because of the difficulties of accepting the appointment from a governor whose future is now in question. Why did you decide differently?

ROLAND BURRIS: Let me explain this to you. Whatever my friends and colleagues decided, that was their decision.

But when I got approached to accept this -- to whether or not I would accept this seat -- naturally, I did some checking around throughout the state and throughout the nation of some of my best advice from my colleagues.

And their advice was certainly, Roland, you're qualified, you know this state, you spent 20 years in Illinois government, you've been elected four times as the state comptroller, three times as state comptroller, one time as attorney general.

You have national experience. You're former vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. There's no one better to fill this spot and represent the 13 million people of this state.

We do not need to have this issue on the table of going into the 111th Congress with only one senator. That is not in the interest of Illinois. And we must have all hands on deck as much as we can with this crises that we have in this state and in this nation, so that is the reason why I accepted that appointment.

And the appointment is legal. The appointment is legitimate. And the governor's problems have absolutely, positively nothing to do with my appointment, none. And I hope that the people will recognize that and separate it, meaning he exercised his constitutional duty and appointed a vacancy. As governor, that's what he did.

RAY SUAREZ: Roland Burris joining us from Chicago, thanks for talking with us.

ROLAND BURRIS: My pleasure, Ray. Happy new year to all your listeners.