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Mark Kirk building Senate profile: Fast start tempered by gloat exchange with McCain

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WASHINGTON -- After a few weeks on the job, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has made clear he is not going to be a backbencher. He's organized other GOP Senate freshmen. He's in great standing with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) even though he cast some votes with Democrats. He's also shown a tendency to grandstand and gloat.

FAST START: Kirk is taking on a high profile already in part because he's a veteran House member who knows the Capitol. He did not have to build an entire congressional staff from scratch. Like Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) who also served in the House before being elected to the Senate, Kirk comes in with a running start. Unlike President Obama, who kept a low profile initially as Illinois junior senator in part because he needed to learn the Senate operation (even though he came in a superstar) -- well, Kirk is not following that model.

Kirk was sworn-in on Nov. 29, replacing Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), to fill the weeks remaining in Obama's Senate term. That's why Kirk will have seniority among the incoming GOP Senate freshman class taking office on Jan. 5. Kirk took it on himself to organize the group and last Thursday called a press conference to talk about their first joint action.

"I'm happy to announce that all of the incoming Republican senators, the 13 of us, have written a letter to Leader Reid and Leader McConnell, expressing our opposition to the omnibus spending bill," said Kirk. "In general, we feel that a 1,900-page bill, spending over $1.1 trillion with over 6,000 earmarks, is a message to the American people that the Congress doesn't get or understand the recent election."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) later on Thursday pulled the earmark-laden bill, faced with opposition that had been brewing not for hours from Kirk but for days from a host of Republicans -- even those who had loads of earmarks in the bill -- Tea Party and good-government activists, outraged cable television hosts and others.

An anti-earmark crusader, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had been steaming over the omnibus, said on the Senate floor after Reid backed down, "I'm encouraged greatly by this action that was taken tonight to do away with this monstrosity."

Kirk, at a desk near McCain, asked McCain to yield the floor to him. Kirk asked a rhetorical question intended to rub it in: "As the most junior senator, for those who are not understanding what just happened, did we just win?"

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) seemed to tear into Kirk -- not by name -- when she responded on the floor, "What's offensive to me is we've gotten into this bad habit of trying to score cheap political points."

INDEPENDENT VOTES: Kirk on Saturday was one of eight GOP senators to support repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" legislation that banned gays from openly serving in the military.

In a vote that got less attention, Kirk and other independent-minded Republicans ticked off Fox News host Sean Hannity for voting against a proposal by Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to make the income tax cuts Congress just voted on permanent.

"I'm trying to figure out. Did they understand the electorate in this election?," an angry Hannity asked.

Kirk on Friday seemed to revert back to campaign mode. He threatened to place a "hold'' on the defense appropriation bill if it included a provision to allow the transfer of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba military prison to the United States. Any senator can stop legislation through a "hold." The provision was taken out in the House bill and Kirk crowed about it from the Senate floor.

But Kirk actually had an ally with Durbin on this. A Durbin spokesman told me no one from the Kirk office called. The Obama administration is buying an underused prison in Thomson, Ill., with the original plan calling for a part of the prison to be used for a small number of Guantanamo detainees, which Kirk opposed. The Thomson purchase is going through anyway and the facility will become a federal prison despite the deadlock over the ultimate fate of Guantanamo -- and that's a good deal for Illinois. Thomson without Guantanamo detainees will likely generate more Illinois and Iowa civilian jobs than if part of it were a military brig.

KIRK 9/11 FLOP FLIP: Last week I took Kirk to task for voting against a measure he backed while in the House to compensate workers at the World Trade Center site because he wanted the Senate to deal with tax and budget bills first. They are done. On Sunday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told me that the Senate may vote again on the 9/11 bill this week and Kirk was not only going to support the measure but he is now "instrumental" in getting other Republicans on board.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on December 20, 2010 9:46 AM.

Mark Kirk's Don't Ask, Don't Tell Vote: Behind the scenes was the previous entry in this blog.

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