For Democrats determined to get a health care bill, Sen. Roland Burris is like the house guest who couldn't be refused, won't soon be leaving and poses a plausible threat of ruining holiday dinner.
Suddenly, he can no longer be ignored.
The Illinois Democrat, appointed by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, says he'll only vote for a bill to provide health care to millions more Americans as long as it allows the government to sell insurance in competition with private insurers.
And he says he won't compromise.
"I would not support a bill that does not have a public option," Burris, 72, said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "That position will not change."
Those words caught the attention of the very Democratic leaders who tried to keep Burris out of the Senate, suggested he resign and have shunned him in unprecedented fashion. Burris is not the only Democrat to insist on creation of a government-run health plan. But he is the one who has the least to lose by defying President Obama and the Democrats who once turned him out in the cold rain.
It was early January and Blagojevich had appointed Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, to Obama's former Senate seat -- defying Democrats in Washington who had wanted someone without a tainted patron and with a better chance of winning election in 2010.
Bitterly, the Democrats seated Burris. But when it came out that Burris had admitted what he had denied under oath -- that he'd unsuccessfully tried to raise money for Blagojevich -- Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., suggested that Burris resign. He refused.
A Senate ethics committee probe is pending into Burris' statements. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, refused to support any effort by Burris to seek a full term, and he will leave the Senate in 2011.
Meanwhile, his relationship with the rest of his caucus has settled into one of mutual, if chilly, benefit.
It works this way: Burris stays mum about any bitterness he may feel about his reception, and he gets Obama's Senate seat for two years. Democrats seat him, don't speak of him and can count on his loyal vote at a time when all 58 Democrats and two independents must vote together to prevent Republican filibusters.
They've never needed 60 votes like they do on the yet-to-be-finalized health care bill.
No, he says, he will not vote for any version of a government-run plan circulating in the Senate, other than the full-blown one from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
It's too early to tell whether the public option, or some version of it, ends up in the final compromise between a committee of House and Senate lawmakers. First, each chamber must pass its version of a health care bill. House Democrats are insisting on the government-run plan; but in the Senate, the public option is less popular.