Could the Senate Expel Roland Burris?

Illinois' senior senator, Durbin, calls Burris' future in the Senate "uncertain"

Feb. 19, 2009 -- Now that Sen. Dick Durbin has declared Roland Burris' future in the Senate "uncertain" and the Senate Ethics Committee has opened a preliminary inquiry, it's worth asking this: If the Senate determines Burris did something terribly wrong, what will they do about it? Would they throw him out of the Senate?

Don't count on it. The Senate hasn't expelled one of its own since 1862, when three senators were ejected for allegedly supporting the confederacy.

With a simple majority vote, the Senate Ethics Committee could recommend expulsion for Burris, but it would take a two-thirds vote of the full Senate to throw him out.

Only 15 Expulsions in History of Senate

In the history of the U.S. Senate, there have only been 15 expulsions.

There have been a handful of more recent cases, however, where senators facing certain expulsion made 11th-hour resignations.

Bob Packwood, a Republican from Oregon, resigned in 1995 after the Ethics Committee voted to expel him, but before it went to the full Senate.

More dramatically, Abscam villain Harrison Williams, a Democrat from New Jersey, resigned in 1982 just as the Senate was preparing to vote to expel him.

Just last year there was the case of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska who was convicted on corruption charges for gifts he received. Stevens was defeated for re-election before he could face near-certain expulsion proceedings.

But it takes a lot to set off expulsion proceedings: treason, rampant sexual harassment, getting caught red-handed accepting bribes, etc.

There are many more things senators don't get expelled for: getting caught frequenting prostitutes like Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was in 2007; or pleading guilty to lewd behavior in a men's bathroom, a la Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, also in 2007.

Senate Censure Even More Rare

Burris, a Democrat, is accused of lying to an Illinois House committee back in January when he testified that he hadn't had contact with aides to disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich. The governor was tossed out of office by the Illinois legislature for corruption last month, including allegations that he tried to sell President Obama's former Senate seat.

Burris originally swore that he had not offered Blagojevich anything for the appointment, but he has since admitted that he spoke several times with Blagojevich's brother and tried to raise money for the governor while Blagojevich was considering an Obama replacement.

That revelation has prompted calls by Chicago newspapers and one congressman for Burris to resign.

Short of expulsion, the Senate can censure one of its own, but this is an even rarer occurrence. In the entire history of the Republic, only eight senators have been censured (or, as it has been sometimes called "denounced" or "condemned"). One of the more recent was Thomas Dodd, father of Connecticut's Democratic senator Chris Dodd, who was censured in 1967 for allegedly using campaign funds for his personal benefit.

One other point: many of those facing expulsion over the years have great names: Trusten Polk, Lazarus W. Powell, Louis T. Wigfall, Waldo Johnson, Reed Smoot. The committee found Sen. Smoot guilty of Mormonism in 1902, although the full Senate voted against expulsion because he still met the Constitutional requirements for being a U.S. Senator.

Things have changed. Now the leader of the United States Senate, Harry Reid, D-Nev., is a Mormon.