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Missing 2 Senators, 111th Congress Starts Work

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Whatever passes the House would also have to pass the U.S. Senate. That's where Republicans have more power. And it is still not entirely clear which senators will be around to vote on the bill. A couple of Democrats who think they should be seated have not been. And one Democrat who took an oath this week is expected to leave within a couple of weeks. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: An hour and a half before the Senate convened at high noon, Roland Burris was already stealing the show.

(Soundbite from U.S. Senate)

Unidentified Man: Open up the hall, please.

WELNA: The man Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich appointed last week to fill the Senate seat of President-elect Obama swept into the Capitol, escorted by the Senate sergeant-at-arms. They went up to the secretary of the Senate's office and 20 minutes later, Burris was back outside the Capitol under a steady, cold rain. He told reporters his bid to be seated as the junior senator from Illinois had been rejected.

Mr. ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois; Former Illinois Attorney General): I presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate, and advised that my credentials were not in order and I would not be accepted, and I will not be seated, and I will not be permitted on the floor.

WELNA: The certificate of appointment Burris presented lacked two crucial items: a signature from Illinois' secretary of state, and the seal of the state of Illinois. Burris is suing to get that missing signature, which the secretary of state withheld because of Blagojevich's arrest last month on corruption charges. Speaking later on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid sounded conciliatory as he addressed the Burris imbroglio.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): Mr. Burris takes possession of valid credentials, the Senate will proceed in a manner that is respectful to Mr. Burris while ensuring that there's no cloud of doubt over the appointment to fill this seat.

WELNA: One leading Senate Democrat, California's Dianne Feinstein, broke ranks with her colleagues and issued a statement demanding that Burris be sworn in and seated, saying his appointment by Blagojevich had been legal. Another Democrat left waiting in the wings is Minnesota's Al Franken. A Minnesota board certified Monday that Franken got 225 more votes than GOP incumbent Norm Coleman. Still, because Franken has not yet been given a certificate of election, he was not sworn in. Majority Leader Reid yesterday urged Coleman to concede.

Senator REID: I hope that former Senator Coleman and all of our Republican colleagues will choose to respect the will of the people of Minnesota. They've chosen a new senator, Al Franken, and his term must begin, and will begin soon.

WELNA: But Mitch McConnell, the leader of Senate Republicans, warned against a rush to fill the seat.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): 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. The people of Minnesota certainly don't believe that the Minnesota Senate race is over.

WELNA: One Minnesotan, in particular, doesn't think that race is over. Now former Senator Coleman announced in St. Paul yesterday that he'll challenge the recount results in court.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): This is not just about me. The eyes of the nation are on the state that we love, and we need to show them that Minnesota has done everything we can to make sure that we protect every voter's right.

WELNA: Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney was in the Senate chamber yesterday swearing in senators, including Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Please raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

WELNA: Biden says he plans to hold onto his Senate seat until possibly late next week.

Vice President-elect JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): This will be the shortest Senate term anyone ever had.

WELNA: The vice president-elect looked uncertain, though, when asked if he'll be casting any significant votes before leaving.

Vice President-elect BIDEN: With the grace of God, the goodwill of neighbors and a lot of luck, we might be able to cast a significant vote. But I don't think it's going to get done.

WELNA: Not in the Senate, still trying to settle who'll be seated. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: And just to let you know, President-elect Obama is going to take questions on the economy and the appointment of Roland Burris as a senator from the state of Illinois. He'll be talking at a news conference this morning, and you can hear it live at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.