In 2002, back when the Democrats controlled the Senate, Sens. Stabenow and Levin went to bat for the Saginaw Chippewa. They wrote to Burns and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), two key appropriators, asking for a grant for the tribe. Burns and Byrd inserted the earmark, and in January of 2003, Stabenow publicly thanked Burns for his help. On the same day, she and Levin, along with Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), sent a letter to the Interior Department on behalf of the tribe.
But in March of 2003, the Interior Department refused to put the funding through, because the Saginaw didn't qualify for the grant. So in May, Burns, along with Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC), co-wrote his famous letter to Interior urging that Interior reconsider. And Sens. Levin and Stabenow followed up with another letter of their own in July, 2003, inquiring about whether the Saginaw would be getting the funding.
And then here's the key part: rather than wait around for Interior to change its mind, Burns reinserted the earmark in November, 2003. This time, the funding went through.
The other half of the story, the alleged quid for the quo, is that Burns and Taylor both got contributions from Abramoff around the time that they wrote their letters to Interior. That's in addition to the simple fact that Burns was an Abramoff favorite, receiving over $141,000 from Abramoff, his associates, and clients.
So that doesn't look good for Burns. But the real question is his alibi. He's said that he inserted the earmarks at Levin's and Stabenow's request - which would be plausible in 2002, when they asked for it... plausible, I say, if you believe that Burns does everything Democrats ask him to do. But here's the thing: after the Interior Department denied the funding in 2003, Levin and Stabenow didn't follow up with an additional request - Burns did that on his own. So saying he inserted the earmark at their request just doesn't work as an alibi.
The other muddying strategy is to go on the offensive against Levin and Stabenow: Republicans are trying to make the argument that Stabenow was in Abramoff's pocket, since she got $4,000 from the Saginaw. That would seem to be a double-edged sword, however, to say the least. And trying to trash two senators for landing some pork for their state's tribe just won't go very far.
So Burns ain't getting off the hook that easily.