The Senate's top two Democrats defended their right to deny a seat to Roland Burris, Barack Obama's would-be successor-in-waiting, while refusing to rule out a deal as Congress and its new members begin work this week.
Democrats say Burris' appointment is tainted because it was made by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is accused by federal authorities of offering to sell the vacancy to the highest bidder. Burris has not been implicated in the scandal.
Blagojevich has ignored calls from fellow Democrats _ including Obama _ to step down. He further defied party leaders by naming Burris to the seat last Tuesday.
Burris, a former state attorney general, says the appointment is legal and the governor had the authority to do it. He has threatened to sue Senate Democrats if they refuse to swear him in as the chamber's only black member.
"Anything can happen," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But he described the chances of Burris joining the Senate as "very difficult."
The second-ranking Democrat, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, acknowledged that his governor has the state constitutional authority to fill the vacancy. Durbin said there are no questions about Burris' integrity, but there are questions about the appointment process under Blagojevich.
"The Senate of the United States has the US constitutional responsibility to decide if Mr. Burris was chosen in a proper manner and that is what we're going to do," Durbin said. Burris intended to depart for Washington on Monday to claim his seat. On Sunday evening, about 60 black ministers gathered in Chicago to show their support for him. Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, condemned Senate Democratic leaders for rejecting Burris, calling the U.S. Senate "the last bastion of plantation politics."
Reid said he expected to meet with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Monday evening in hopes "we can solve this issue on a bipartisan basis." Reid added, "I'm an old trial lawyer. There's always room to negotiate."
McConnell said Illinois should hold a special election to determine Obama's replacement to ensure an untainted process "to have a successor chose in Illinois that everybody can have confidence in."
But Burris told a Chicago television station on Sunday morning that the appointment is not "based on what the status of the governor is" and that he hopes "the details surrounding my legal appointment to that office will be worked out in advance" of his arrival on Capitol Hill. Burris maintained that he has nothing to do with the corruption investigation surrounding Blagojevich. Democratic leaders, however, plan to afford him few if any privileges even if he were to come to the Capitol with the proper credentials. Senate officials have said a Democrat will object to Burris being sworn in with the rest of his class on Tuesday and will propose that his credentials be reviewed for a period of time by the Senate Rules Committee. That would give Burris the status of a senator-elect and buy some time as Democrats hope Blagojevich will be removed from office before the committee completes its investigation.
Also Sunday, Reid denied a published report he told Blagojevich in early December that he opposed the appointments of two African-American congressmen, Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis, to the Senate seat out of fear they would lose the seat to a Republican in the 2010 general election. Reid also allegedly opposed Emil Jones, the powerful black leader of the Illinois Senate, on the same grounds.
"I didn't tell him who not to appoint. He's making all this up to divert attention," Reid said. "Anyone who suggests anything racial is part of the Blagojevich spin to take (attention) away from the corruption."
In Illinois, state lawmakers were hastening to resume meetings on whether to impeach Blagojevich. The state House has bumped up its schedule and will meet several days next week. They had been set to reconvene on Jan. 12.
A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan said the state chamber may vote on a recommendation from the special committee studying whether Blagojevich should be impeached. It would take a simple majority vote for the House to impeach _ which basically means accusing him of misconduct.
Then the state Senate would hold a trial to determine if the governor is guilty. A conviction there requires a two-thirds majority.
Reid appeared on NBC television's "Meet the Press," while Durbin and McConnell were on "This Week" on ABC.