Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Political Version of Chicken

As we get closer to the start of the 2009 Congressional session, the Illinois Senate seat vacated by President-Elect Barack Obama has become a subject of controversy on many levels. First, it started with a recording of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevic talking about getting money for the seat. The controversy swirled outwards to engulf Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been tapped to resolve the conflict over whether Blagojevic's choice, Roland Burris, should be seated. It's also been suggested that Senate Democrats may physically block Burris if he tries to be seated.

To give a little bit of background, the Constitution gives the Governor of a state the power to appoint a replacement for a Senator in situations like the one in Illinois. However, the Senate can be called in to resolve a dispute over a Senate seat. Most of the time, the Constitutional resolution is agreeable to all parties, so it doesn't get to the level it could with the Burris appointment.

Ah, but this is Chicago politics we're talking about here. Nothing is ever clean and simple in Chicago politics.

Blagojevic may be a scumbag, but he's a smart scumbag. He knows what power he has on the situation and has put Senate Democrats in a bad situation with the Burris appointment. Since Burris is an African-American, Senate Democrats who oppose seating him could be seen in the African-American community as racist. And Democrats won't have any room to complain, given how Democrats have painted the Republicans as racist for their lack of minority representation within their Congressional ranks. After the Democrats, including Barack Obama to a lesser extent, tried to throw him under the bus, Blagojevic may have found the way to go down swinging.

The Senate Democrats are hanging their hopes for a Senate resolution of this matter on a couple of different factors. First, they are questioning whether Blagojevic is still technically considered to be the Governor of Illinois. The problem with this notion is the fact that Blagojevic has not been convicted of any crime, hasn't been impeached, and has not stepped down. Under the current understanding of what constitutes whether a public official is legit, Blagojevic meets the requirements.

Also, the Senate does have the Constitution authority under Article I Section 5 to be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its members. Some have said this gives the Senate the authority to reject Burris, but I would argue it doesn't apply because Burris wasn't elected; he was appointed. This may seem to some to be a distinction without a difference, but it does. Since he wasn't elected, there is no election or return for the Senate to judge. That leaves the qualifications part, and under the requirements to be a Senator as noted in the Constitution, Burris qualifies.

Refusing to seat a legally appointed Senator under the circumstances described here has no real purpose except to possibly provide cover for the President-Elect. Although there has been no formal direct connection between Blagojevic and Obama, you have to admit that what has already been revealed doesn't help Obama, and Obama hasn't exactly helped himself with his initial statements going from no one talked to the Governor to the people who said there was talking "misspoke" to some have talked to the Governor about it but not Obama directly. Now that he's been told not to make statements about an ongoing investigation, Obama has a reprieve for now.

That doesn't, however, mean Obama can't lend support for Burris or offer a viable alternative. This is a golden opportunity for Obama to establish firm ground on which to base his leadership as President. Not every leadership opportunity is going to be easy, and by forcing the Senate's hand, Blagojevic has certainly complicated this matter. Yet, leadership isn't forged during times of ease and comfort; it is forged during times of stress and difficulty. And it certainly doesn't automatically come with the office of the Presidency.

The longer the Burris situation remains unresolved, the more it has the potential of causing an unnecessary train wreck for the Senate and the President. Then again, that's always a possibility when you play Chicken.

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