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WASHINGTON--In the wake of revelations the U.S. government secretly asked Verizon for massive amounts of data on tens of millions of phone calls, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) asked Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday if the National Security Agency monitored calls placed from the Capitol.

Holder said there was no intention to "spy" on Congress and said he would not go into details on the calls in a public setting.

Kirk quizzed Holder during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing where Holder was testifying on the Justice Department fiscal 2014 budget request.

Kirk used the occasion to ask Holder about the government Verizon snooping.

"Mr. Attorney General, I want to take you to the Verizon scandal and -- which I understand takes us to possibly monitoring up to 120 million calls. You know, when government bureaucrats are sloppy, they're usually really sloppy. Want to just ask, could you assure to us that no phone inside the Capitol were monitored of members of Congress that would give a future executive branch, if they started pulling this kind of thing off, would give them unique leverage over the legislature?

Holder replied, "With all due respect, Senator, I don't think this is an appropriate setting for me to discuss that issue. I'd be more than glad to come back in a -- in an appropriate setting to discuss the issues that you have raised," noting they were speaking in public.

Kirk, a Naval intelligence officer, was not satisfied with Holder's answer.

Said Kirk, "I would interrupt you and say the correct answer would be say no, we stayed within our lane, and I'm assuring you we did not spy on members of Congress."

Holder didn't want to discuss the secret snooping in public and offered some assurances about spying on members of Congress and the Supreme Court.

"And I would be more than glad, as I said, in an appropriate setting, to deal with the question. And Senator Kirk, please do not take my response as something -- as being anything but respectful of the concerns that you have raised. There has been no intention to do anything of that nature -- that is, to spy on members of Congress, to spy on members of the Supreme Court."

WASHINGTON -- Well, this was one heck of a productive meeting. Sen. Mark Kirk, dropping his bravado, didn't bring up his "big project"-- the mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples in Chicago. Rep. Bobby Rush, purging himself of race-based insults, sweetly talked about how Kirk's heart "is in the right place."

Despite different views on how to battle murderous gang violence in Chicago, Kirk, a Republican who lives near Highland Park and Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Calumet near 35th in the city, agreed Tuesday to work together after meeting for about an hour in Kirk's suite in the Hart Senate Office Building.

The Illinois lawmakers emerged to talk to reporters about what now is their joint effort to fightg gangs in Chicago. Neither man took questions, deciding before coming out to leave well enough alone.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) mending fences on Tuesday, agreeing to work together to combat gang violence in Chicago. The two spoke outside Kirk's Hart Senate Office Building suite. (video by Lynn Sweet)

WASHINGTON--Putting aside differences for now, Sen. Mark Kirk and Rep. Bobby Rush agreed after a meeting on Tuesday to work together to combat the Gangster Disciples in Chicago, with Kirk promising to tour Chicago's South Side and consult with Rush "to guide me to the most effective programs that could defeat the gangs."

After huddling together for almost an hour in Kirk's Hart Senate Office Building suite, the Illinois lawmakers emerged to discuss what now is their joint approach to battle gangs in Chicago. Neither man took questions from reporters. Rush requested the meeting in the wake of Kirk's proposal for mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples in Chicago--and Rush's own harsh words attacking Kirk as a suburban no-nothing when it came to battling Chicago gangs.

"This meeting shows that Bobby and I can work out any differences because we love Chicago so much that we won't give up," Kirk said.

"My feeling is the elected Representative of the First Congressional District knows it best and that he will be able to guide me to the most effective programs that could defeat the gangs. ...Bobby and I have agreed to tour the First Congressional District and I have asked him to show me the worst of the worst where officials may fear to tread and actually listed to kids."

Rush said, "He and I have agreed to not only work together, he said he will visit Englewood and other communities there. I am looking forward to him listening to young people." Rush gave Kirk a book to read about the high incarceration rates of African Americans and the impact on communities, "The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarcerations in the Age of Colorblindness," by Michelle Alexander.

After that listening tour--no date has yet been set--Rush said "we are going to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do legislatively to impress upon the administration how some of these issues need to be addressed."

Absent from the remarks of Kirk, a Republican, was the bravado of recent weeks when he announced his proposal for mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples, to be bankrolled with $30 million he would be requesting from Congress.

Rush, a Democrat, for his part, drastically toned down his rhetoric after offering scathing criticism of Kirk's plan last week in an interview with the Sun-Times, saying "It's a sensational, headline-grabbing, empty, simplistic, unworkable approach" that was an "upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about."

On Tuesday, Kirk and Rush needed each other.

Kirk launched a round of meetings with federal and local law enforcement officials to get input for his arrest plan but did not seek a buy-in from the three Illinois lawmakers--all African-American--whose districts would be most impacted by mass arrests of what would almost most likely be young, African American males. With Congress cash-strapped, Kirk would have a tough time in any case finding $30 million. With Rush and fellow Illinois Democrats Rep. Danny Davis and Rep. Robin Kelly against Kirk's plan, the path to funding would be almost impossible to find.

Rush found himself criticized for using race-based language in blasting Kirk's plan. While it is not known if he offered any apology, his new tone seemed to speak for itself.

Kirk never backed down from his mass arrest plan and did not discuss the multi-front assault on youth violence championed by Rush--in particular finding jobs for at risk kids.

Though "we disagree on some aspects" of what to do, Rush said, "...I think over due time, he will understand what is from my perspective a more comprehensive approach."

As Rush was departing and Kirk turning back towards his office, Kirk paused. He shouted out, "OK Bobby, see you in Englewood."

WASHINGTON--Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) will meet Tuesday here in the wake of Rush's stinging criticism of Kirk's call for mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples, a Rush spokesman said Monday.

Kirk last week said he will seek $30 million from Congress to bankroll the project. Rush wants to discuss channeling more money to youth unemployment. Rush will also tell Kirk that "he is willing to show him around his district," spokesman Debra Johnson told the Sun-Times. Johnson said Rush sought the meeting with Kirk.

Later on Tuesday, in a separate meeting, Rush will discuss gun violence with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Rush also requested the Durbin meeting, Johnson said.

The Sun-Times analysis of the formidable hurdles Kirk must clear to implement his plan is HERE.

Excerpt from analysis: "Before going public with his plan, which would overwhelmingly affect African-American gang members, Kirk did not seek any buy-in from the three Illinois members of Congress who are black and whose districts would likely be most affected by the sweep.

The three Democrats -- Rep. Bobby Rush, Rep. Danny Davis and Rep. Robin Kelly -- are all critical of Kirk's idea.

On Friday, Davis told the Sun-Times that Kirk's plan is the "most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of in my life. I am totally amazed that something like this could come out of the senator's office." Davis said he "would have loved to have had some discussions" with Kirk to offer his input before the senator started talking about it in public.

Kelly told the Sun-Times on Friday, "While I agree with Sen. Kirk that we need to do more to crack down on gangs and other violent criminals, I don't think his plan is viable. Ending gun violence requires a more nuanced approach that includes creating access to jobs and job training, mental health counseling, mentoring and other social and community supports that offer young people alternatives to violence. It also requires passing commonsense gun control measures that keep guns out of the wrong hands."

Rush was the first to blast Kirk's plan, telling the Sun-Times on Wednesday that it was a "headline-grabbing, empty, simplistic" and "upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about."

By Lynn Sweet and Frank Main
Chicago Sun-Times

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is highly critical of a proposal by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) for mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples, telling the Sun-Times on Wednesday that Kirk's approach is "headline grabbing" and an "upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about."

One of Kirk's top priorities is targeting gangs; he has been meeting with law enforcement officials to devise a plan to execute the mass arrests.

Rush's comments came as Kirk and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) huddled Wednesday with Zachary Fardon, the nominee for U.S. attorney in Chicago, and urged him to keep fighting public corruption and to redouble the battle against street gangs.

The senators asked Fardon, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate in the coming months, to put the pressure on Chicago's largest gang, the Gangster Disciples.

Kirk said at a press conference with Durbin at the Union League Club following the Fardon meeting that he will ask the Senate Appropriations Committee for $30 million "to go after gangs like the GDs . . . and pick the biggest and baddest for a federal effort."

"I think it's completely within the capability of the United States government to crush a major urban gang," Kirk said. "Just think of what the greatest generation did here in Chicago, pretty much crushing the Capone organization."

Rush, asked by the Sun-Times to react to Kirk's proposal said in a phone interview: "It's a sensational, headline-grabbing, empty, simplistic, unworkable approach."

If there is $30 million for Congress to spend, better most of it be allocated for "job creation and job training," to address the gang problem, Rush said.

Rush's House district includes communities plagued by gang violence. He said his criticism of Kirk is "not to excuse their activities."

Rush said an arrest sweep "is not going to work. . . . It is not a law and order, lock 'em up solution."

Rush said he would like to talk to Kirk, to "get him to see the bigger picture." He added, "I am really very upset with Mark" and that Kirk's approach was an "upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about."

Realizing those were very strong words, a short time later Rush issued a follow-up statement to the Sun-Times to put his remarks in context.

Kirk's "current plan does not include the option to create jobs, provide affordable and safe housing, quality health care and improve schools in urban areas, BUT certainly a plan to incarcerate 18,000 black men is elitist. Why is incarceration the sole option instead of rehabilitation which is proven to work and not locking young men up," Rush said in an email.

A Kirk spokesman, told of Rush's comments, said Kirk's "commitment to stopping gang violence in our communities goes back more than a decade. The senator will continue to work with Sen. Durbin, Mayor Emanuel, law enforcement and the entire congressional delegation to keep Illinois families safe."

Finding the money to bankroll the mass arrests will be a major hurdle to clear in Congress, even though Kirk and Durbin are members of the appropriations panel in the Senate.

In the House, there is massive resistance to spending from Tea Party Republicans. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) sits on the House Appropriations Committee and told the Sun-Times, "it is not easy getting money out of the House, worthwhile or not."

Quigley said he appreciates Kirk "going after a plague in Chicago" but believes the focus for federal prosecutors and police should be on "prosecuting the most serious gun traffickers who put weapons in the hands of gang members."

On Tuesday, Kirk, trying to put pieces in place to implement his plan for the mass arrests, met with the Chicago chiefs of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Lynn Sweet reported from Washington D.C.

By Lynn Sweet and Frank Main
Chicago Sun-Times

WASHINGTON -- Illinois Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin are meeting with U.S. Attorney nominee Zachary Fardon on Wednesday to discuss stepping up gun and gang prosecutions in Chicago -- as Kirk is calling for mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples.

President Barack Obama tapped Fardon last week, picking from four names jointly forwarded to the White House by Durbin, a Democrat and Kirk, a Republican. The Senate Judiciary Committee -- of which Durbin is a member -- is expected to approve Fardon in one or two months and send his nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.

In the meantime, the Fardon meeting in Chicago comes as one of Kirk's top priorities since he has returned to the Senate from his stroke is targeting gangs.

"My big project is to take out the Gangster Disciple gang, which would involve about 18,000 arrests," Kirk said on May 20, speaking before the "Illinois Group" in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The group represents Illinois corporations, law firms and trade associations in Washington.

"I sort of scared the federal judges involved and said I might be needing to process about 18,000 defendants to your courtrooms, could you do this, [because] this would really help our state. And they were very agreeable," Kirk said.

Kirk's team describes his Gangster Disciples proposal as a major thrust against all gangs and very much a work in progress, with costs, logistics and other details to be worked out.

Kirk discussed his idea with Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy before approaching Jack Riley, head of the Chicago office of the DEA. Riley oversees a multi-agency strike force that could target members of the Gangster Disciples.

DEA is "definitely interested in doing this," but the strike force would need additional staff members, said one federal official on background, adding, "It comes down to money."

The police issued a statement saying: "CPD supports Sen. Kirk's efforts to crack down on gang crime and will continue to work with our federal law enforcement partners."

Kirk's interest in stomping out gang activity is not new; it started when he was a House member and Waukegan and North Chicago, in his north suburban congressional district, suffered from gang activity.

Kirk's team says he understood that the killers of Hadiya Pendleton -- the 15-year-old whose funeral was attended by first lady Michelle Obama -- were tied to the Gangster Disciples. That's why he's targeting them.

The reality is that the GDs have splintered into dozens of factions in recent years. A war on the GDs would mean targeting those factions -- and not a monolithic gang. Hadiya's killers were allegedly members of one such faction, called SUWU.

Kirk's Gangster Disciples plan is his most ambitious anti-gang initiative to date.

Kirk and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) last January introduced a bill aimed at reducing gun straw purchasers -- a proposal that could impact gang violence in Chicago, Kirk said at the time. (The measure failed in the Senate last April.)

In 2008, Kirk joined with federal and local law enforcement officials to spotlight the "10 most wanted" gang members in Lake County -- targeting more than 2,000 gang members.

In 2009, Kirk sponsored a measure, the "Alien Gang Removal Act," to deport illegal immigrants if convicted of a gang crime and called for the creation of a "National Gang Task Force."

Frank Main reported from Chicago.

WASHINGTON--Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) lauded Commerce Secretary nominee Penny Pritzker, the Chicago billionaire business executive a few hours before introducing her with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) at her Thursday confirmation hearing.

She "inherited a few dollars," Durbin noted at a Thursday morning breakfast for Illinois residents visiting Washington he co-hosts with Kirk. But she has "made a few dollars in her life."

"She also participated in the Iron Man triathlathons," he said. "I'm not ready to take her on it that."

For ongoing coverage of the Pritzker confirmation hearing, find more at and @lynnsweet on Twitter.

WASHINGTON--Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) lauded Commerce Secretary nominee Penny Pritzker, the Chicago billionaire business executive a few hours before introducing her with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) at her Thursday confirmation hearing.

"When somebody from your state gets nominated for a top job, which often happens when your president is from your state, today I'm going to be introducing Penny Pritzker of Chicago to be our next commerce secretary. Pretty excited to do that," Kirk said at a coffee for Illinois consitutients he co-hosted with Durbin.

He said Pritzker was "a vibrant part of the Jewish world, of the charitable world in Chicago."

For ongoing coverage of the Pritzker confirmation hearing, find more at and @lynnsweet on Twitter.

WASHINGTON--Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said Tuesday he will back Penny Pritzker for Commerce Secretary, the first Republican to make a public statement in support of the Chicago billionaire business mogul who is a close friend of President Barack Obama.

As I reported here Monday, Kirk will help introduce Pritzker at her Thursday confirmation hearing, joining Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in a traditional role for home state senators.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also announced his support, with the senator, who has a labor following, making his backing public while UNITE HERE Local 1, the hotel workers union, started a drive to urge senators to vote against Pritzker because of long-running union disputes with Hyatt Hotels, the chain controlled by the Pritzker family.

Kirk said in a statement, "I support Penny Pritzker for Commerce Secretary and will introduce her alongside Senator Durbin at Thursday's confirmation hearing. I believe that, based on her extensive experience in business, she will put jobs and economic growth first. I met with Ms. Pritzker and found her to be someone who is willing to take on special interests, and I am confident her successful private-sector record and close ties to the business community will be beneficial to all of Illinois."

By Frank Main
Chicago Sun-Times Crime Reporter

Secretary of State John Kerry singled out the Chicago Police Department on Monday as one of 60 U.S. law enforcement agencies that have recently worked with other nations in "developing the rule of law."

More than 25 Chicago Police officers have participated in State Department missions over the past eight years, most recently in Mexico and Honduras. In Mexico, Chicago Police officers have been involved in a U.S. program to combat drug trafficking and production.

Under the Merida initiative, Chicago Police officers helped train members of Mexico's national police force, which has grown more than 300 percent in recent years, officials said.

The State Department is also focused on training state and municipal police officers in Mexico. About three weeks ago, U.S. authorities were pleased to hear Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, say he supports efforts to work with state governments in Mexico to improve their law enforcement capabilities, said William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.

"We do not have the final plan," Brownfield said.

Under the State Department program, the U.S. government pays the Chicago Police officers and provides food, lodging, transportation and security. In Mexico, the Chicago Police officers have been able to gain intelligence about narcotics organizations that sell drugs in Chicago -- and build relationships with their law enforcement counterparts in Mexico, officials said.

"It's a win-win," Brownfield said, adding, "Chicago has become a very effective partner."

Nicholas Roti, chief of the Chicago Police Department's Bureau of Organized Crime, was in Washington on Monday for the State Department's recognition of the Chicago Police officers, Brownfield said. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) attended the ceremony where the Chicago Police officers were honored.

Roti and he said was in El Salvador twice on missions in which the State Department
provided training on investigating gang crimes and homicides.

"It definitely helped us understand the people better," he said. "It was an

WASHINGTON--Gov. Pat Quinn formally requested federal flood assistance on Thursday, unleashing a bi-partisan push from the entire Illinois congressional delegation for President Barack Obama to declare 11 Illinois counties in need of disaster relief following torrential April downpours.

Quinn, in Springfield, said 49 Illinois counties were impacted and further disaster relief requests for more counties would be coming. "We want to move forward as quickly as possible," Quinn said. The 11 Illinois counties suffering damage from the rainstorm starting on April 18 are: Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Fulton, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, LaSalle, McHenry and Will.

Quinn said the White House will be asked to handle the request on an expedited basis. Once a county is declared a disaster, residents can apply for federal loans and other financial flood and storm relief.

The delegation wrote in a letter to Obama, "The State of Illinois has determined that state and local funds are not adequate to address the damage to public infrastructure and costs related to debris removal and emergency protective measures resulting from this weather event. "We respectfully request that you make the necessary declaration so that these counties can receive the assistance they need. We thank you in advance for your timely consideration of this important request and stand ready to assist in any way appropriate."

Members signing today's letter are Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Representatives Cheri Bustos (D-IL), Danny Davis (D-IL), Rodney Davis (R-IL), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Bill Enyart (D-IL), Bill Foster (D-IL), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Robin Kelly (D-IL), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Dan Lipinski (D-IL), Mike Quigley (D-IL), Peter Roskam (R-IL), Bobby Rush (D-IL), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Brad Schneider (D-IL), Aaron Schock (R-IL) and John Shimkus (R-IL).

Text of the letter below...

WASHINGTON--Illinois and other states could collect sales tax on online purchases under a measure approved by the Senate Monday on a 69-27 vote. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who championed the "Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013" voted yes; Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) voted no. The legislation now advances to the House, where it faces an uncertain future.

Durbin said in a statement, "I am proud to have joined sixty-nine of my Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle in passing this long-overdue legislation that will give much needed support to local businesses around the country," said Durbin. "I thank Senators Enzi, Alexander, Cardin, Heitkamp, Reed and many others for their efforts in securing such strong support for this legislation. I've often listened to speeches in the House and Senate about how we need to do more to make certain that small businesses - the true job creators - can succeed. A solid majority of the Senate stood up for small business today. I think the support in the House will be similar if the leadership practices what they preach and calls this bill for a vote."

Background, from Durbin: "The Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013 - introduced by Durbin and Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY), Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) - would give states the option to require the collection of sales and use taxes already owed under state law by out-of-state businesses, rather than rely on consumers to remit those taxes to the States, the method of tax collection to which they are now restricted. The bill currently has the support of over 268 labor, business and government organizations while 22 Governors (15 Republicans and 7 Democrats) have come out in support of leveling the playing field for businesses by addressing sales tax fairness."

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's pick for commerce secretary, Chicago's Penny Pritzker, is leaving the world she has dominated for decades -- as a business tycoon, civic leader and philanthropist -- to become, if confirmed, the storied clan's first major public official.

"She has always been active on not-for-profit boards, and more recently the Chicago Board of Education," White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told me Thursday, a little after Obama announced her appointment in a Rose Garden ceremony.

"She cares deeply about giving back. If not for a president that she respects and knows so well, then when? This felt both the right time and the perfect position."

Pritzker now is the most public face of a private family, one of the nation's wealthiest -- and most charitable -- who vaulted from the business sections to the politics pages as Obama's 2008 national finance chair. Before that, the Pritzker in the political news had been mainly her younger brother, J.B., who in 1998 lost a Democratic primary House bid.

After the 2008 election, Pritzker was in the running to be commerce secretary, but withdrew her name. The Obama team was concerned about the optics; Obama was going to change how business was done in Washington and installing his billionaire finance chair would be sending the wrong message. Also, Pritzker's own financial picture was complicated and would have been difficult to untangle.

With Pritzker's finances streamlined in the past four years -- and with her lower profile in the Obama 2012 re-election campaign, with Obama not worried about re-election and with a sense of carving out a unique Pritzker public service role -- the time was right.

"She's charged up," said David Axelrod, Obama's former top strategist who was in the Rose Garden for the announcement. "And I don't think whatever comes in the way of static is on her mind."

The commerce appointment comes at a price the billionaire Pritzker is willing to pay: extensive financial disclosure and scrutiny by the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Science Committee. No date has been set for her confirmation hearings, though a spokesman for Committee Chair Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W-Va.) said Thursday the aim is for "as quick a confirmation process as possible."

I thought Pritzker would have had to reveal at least a little something about her financial empire in the statement of economic interests she filed with the Cook County clerk last May 1 in connection with her Chicago Board of Education appointment. Turned out, she disclosed nothing.

Instead of listing the identity of any capital asset from which a gain of $5,000 or more was realized -- as requested -- Pritzker's reply on the form was that if anyone wanted more information about the family's "numerous capital assets" they should contact the Pritzker family office.

Can't get away with that again.

Pritzker will have two main confirmation issues: the failure of Superior Bank, a Hinsdale savings and loan the Pritzker family controlled, shortchanging 1,406 depositors, and tax avoidance tactics employed by her various holdings.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement: "Every nominee's offshore tax avoidance activities should be examined as part of the nomination process. If the Commerce Committee doesn't explore those questions with the nominee, I plan to do so, but I hope the committee will at least give the tax history a serious look."

As soon as Obama made the Pritzker announcement, the Republican National Committee went after her for her role in the 2001 bank failure with an email headlined, "The new addition to Obama's economic team is another political ally with a history of controversial business practices."

A 2008 Sun-Times story revealed a May 2001 letter that Pritzker wrote where she "appeared to be taking a leadership role in trying to revive the bank with an expanded push into subprime loans." The bank failed a few months later.

Chicago attorney Clint Krislov represented the depositors who lost money and I asked him Thursday about the Pritzker appointment. Krislov -- a Democratic donor -- told me, "the signal we're sending is if you are very wealthy you get a special deal and you get a Cabinet spot."

GOP Senate reaction was lukewarm and Sen. Mark Kirk did not even bother putting out a statement for his home-state pick.

Sen. Dick Durbin, other Democrats and -- most telling -- a variety of influential GOP oriented business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all welcomed the Pritzker appointment.

Bottom line: Unless there is some surprise, Pritzker -- who has the support of the business community -- will be confirmed.

Pritzker turned 54 on Thursday and Obama took note of her birthday in his remarks.

"So happy birthday, Penny. For your birthday present, you get to go through confirmation. It's going to be great. "

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans blocked a series of gun-control measures on Wednesday with an anti-trafficking provision named after Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teen shot to death in a park, expected to be sidelined with the rest of the gun bill on Thursday.

Two items of particular interest to the Chicago area -- an amendment expanding background checks to close gun show and other loopholes and another amendment cracking down on gun trafficking and fencing, with similar Pendleton language -- could not muster the 60 votes needed to advance.

Each of those amendments had a majority, but in the Senate, the 60-vote, supermajority threshold was needed to avoid a filibuster.

President Barack Obama -- who could not get the votes Wednesday for legacy legislation -- said: "I see this as just round one." It's not clear -- given that public opinion was on the side of gun-control advocates -- when or under what circumstances gets him round two.

Hadiya's mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton in reaction told the Sun-Times' Becky Schlikerman, "It's just disheartening, these are bills that are being proposed to make our lives safer."

"Something needs to be done. There should be something on the table instead of nothing. . . . I do pray that the gun trafficking law is passed. Something needs to happen."

Sen. Mark Kirk broke with most of the Republicans on the gun votes. Kirk and Sen. Dick Durbin were the central crafters of the anti-trafficking language.

Kirk was the only Republican to vote for an assault weapons ban championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He was one of four Republicans to support expanded background checks in a deal crafted by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W-Va.).

Kirk, who already had an "F" rating from the National Rifle Association, had little to risk, unlike Toomey and Manchin who had NRA "A" ratings.

Republicans in the Senate failed on Thursday to block the chamber from taking up a series of gun-control bill. With a filibuster threat clear, the Senate will spend at least the next week debating gun legislation. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat and Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, voted to let debate begin. See the Roll Call HERE
(Photo by office of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

One of the best Illinois traditions has been the Thursday coffees hosted by Illinois senators for anyone from Illinois who is in Washington when the Senate is in session. It's a tradition going back over 35 years, started by the late Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) After Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) suffered a stroke--sidelining him for almost a year--the two-Senator coffees obviously were put on hold. On Thursday, Durbin and Kirk held their first coffee of the 113th Congress.

Good morning. Grab your rain gear, stormy weather ahead. [Sun-Times]

Hours after her election to the House, Robin Kelly is jetting to Washington Wednesday catching the 8 a.m. American Airlines flight. Kelly day ahead: O'Hare Airport interview, in D.C. meetings to get her operation set-up. Swearing-in Thursday afternoon, followed by a reception in her office. Kelly easily won the special election to replace disgraced former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. [Sun-Times]

Two semi-trucks collided on Interstate 80 early Wednesday, killing one of the drivers and closing the expressway to westbound traffic in Joliet, Illinois state police said. [Sun-Times]

First Lady Michelle Obama heads to the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan for 11:30 a.m. lunch with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to bolster his fund-raising drive to bankroll projects for at-risk youths. Mrs. Obama motorcades over to Harper High, 6520 S. Wood for 2 p.m. event.

Senate gun deal
Two key senators forged a bi-partisan compromise deal on gun background checks with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) announcing the details at 11 a.m. ET at a press conference in Washington. This comes as the entire Senate is poised to debate major gun legislation as early as Thursday, with a filibuster threat from GOP senators overcome on Tuesday. [Sun-Times] [Washington Post]
Prognosis: Major hurdles ahead as Senate debates gun measures next week.

Michelle Obama back home
When Mrs. Obama speaks this morning--to a group of some 700 business, civic and community leaders gathered by Emanuel, we'll be listening to see if the ever cautious First Lady speaks out about gun-control. [Lynn Sweet column] [The Hill] [Marin Report]
And Mrs. Obama is not sure about her bangs. [People]

Remembering slain diplomat
Touching service at Fenwick High School in Oak Park for alum Anne Smedinghoff, who died "in the smoking chaos of a car bomb attack in southern Afghanistan." [Sun-Times]

New life for old post office
A stunning high-rise multi-use is proposed to replace the old main Chicago Post Office with the distinctive feature of having part of the building built over the Congress Parkway. [Sun-Times Grid]

Obama $3.77 trillion budget unveiled
President Obama delivers a statement about his proposed budget from the Rose Garden at 10 a.m. [Washington Post]

Early GOP react from Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, out Wednesday morning."Reminder That You Can't Trust the Numbers That the White House Uses in Previews of Their Budget." Obama dines with GOP senators at 6:30 p.m. ET in the Old Family Dining Room. On the menu: dishing up good will.

4 takeaways from senior White House officials budget briefing:

  • *Budget contains last offer Obama earlier put on the table so the GOP should be open to it.

  • *False choice, having to choose between deficit reduction and job creation.

  • *Let's get the era of government by crisis behind us.

  • *If the GOP refuses to put revenues in the deal, there is no deal.

Political business
Emanuel's Deputy Communications Director Kathleen Strand and AllState's Corporate Communications Strategy Manager Bobby Kellman - both Hillary Clinton campaign alums - have set their wedding date. October 5 at the South Shore Cultural Center. Same place Rahm and Amy/Barack and Michelle wed.

...Obama tapped for United State Holocaust Memorial Council: Rabbi Sam Gordon from Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette and Maureen Schulman, Eli's Cheesecake public relations chief.

...Harold Washington's gang is getting together today, heading to the City Council chamber when aldermen take up a resolution proclaiming April 15 "Harold Washington Day." As the late mayor would say, "You want Harold, you got him."

Play it again. Chicago Symphony Orchestra press conference to announce projects for the 2013-14 season. ...Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams at the University of Illinois, Chicago to keynote 4th annual World Health Day symposium. ...UIC also hosting "Top Chef" quarter finalist Beverly Kim, to talk about her experience on the TV show. ..Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics. ...Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) guested on MSNBC's "Daily Rundown," hosted by Chuck Todd.

Sports Today
Cubs host Milwaukee, White Sox away game with the Washington Nationals. Keep an eye out for the political fund-raisers....

A recovering stroke victim, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) tells Yahoo! News he support's President Barack Obama's proposal, unveiled this week, to invest $100 million in brain research. The brain study will be part of the budget Obama will present to Congress on April 10.

From the story by Yahoo! News Chris Moody, Kirk's statement:

"Having suffered an ischemic stroke, I understand the importance of investing in science and technology to better understand our brain's circuitry and neurological interactions," Kirk told Yahoo News. "The new BRAIN initiative, which includes fostering partnerships with private institutions, will help bring us closer to learning more about mapping the most powerful, innovative tool in our bodies. After meeting with the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke [NINDS], I hope the research from the BRAIN initiative will continue to help doctors and scientists better understand strokes, their effects, and long-term health impacts."

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Mark Kirk announced Tuesday he supports gay marriage, the result of a new appreciation for life and love he's gained as a survivor of a stroke that almost killed him.

It's another chapter in an evolving stroke-inspired journey for a man who opposed gay marriage when he started running for the Senate in 2009 -- worried about a challenge from the right in the 2010 GOP primary.

Kirk's announcement tells us a few things:

♦ Kirk didn't want to be bringing up the rear on this issue.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) also announced his support for same-sex marriage on Tuesday, with a post on Facebook.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) recently told the touching story of wanting his gay son to be able to wed in declaring his gay marriage backing.

With Portman and Kirk the only Republican senators for gay marriage, that makes them stand out. Portman's politics are often to the right of Kirk. Supporting gay marriage early -- that is for a Republican -- helps Kirk burnish a moderate credential.

Sen. Dick Durbin is one of 48 Democratic and Independent senators who back gay marriage.

♦ Curiously, Kirk, the top Republican in the state, did not use the occasion to explicitly call on the Illinois House to pass a pending gay marriage bill the state Senate already approved.

President Barack Obama wrestled with gay marriage for years. It was only last May that Obama said: "At a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married."

However once Obama was in -- well, he was in. Last December, as state lawmakers in Springfield started to take up gay marriage legislation, Obama (a former state senator) sent a statement that if he were still in the Illinois Legislature, "he would support this measure that would treat all Illinois couples equally."

Obama, Durbin and seven House Democrats -- all from the Chicago area -- have urged the Illinois House to pass the now stalled state bill.

♦ Kirk is not anticipating a 2016 GOP primary challenge where gay marriage support would be an issue. Anyway, that's years away.

♦ Kirk's stroke has liberated him. Kirk vaulted into the news with a heartfelt, 68-word statement: "Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back -- government has no place in the middle."

A Kirk staffer told a gay marriage advocate: "The journey story is clear; he is unshackled since he came back from his stroke."

♦ Kirk and his staff, I'm told, did hear from a lot of people urging him to speak up on the gay marriage issue sooner than later.

Rick Garcia, director of the Equal Marriage Illinois Project told me, "We've met with his staff and talked to him."

River Forest residents Lee and David Neubecker are the parents of Braiden, 10. On March 1, David Neubecker and Braiden met with Kirk legislative staffer Gretchan Blum in Washington.

Neubecker said his daughter made the case why "her two dads should be allowed to get married."

Kirk's past opposition to gay marriage seems based more on politics than convictions, given what he told the Illinois Radio Network on Tuesday.

"Most of us have gay acquaintances at work or at church and we know them and the thought of legally discriminating against our own friends and co-workers is an anathema to me," Kirk said in the interview.

Kirk wrote a column that ran in the Washington Post on Feb. 1 about how his stroke -- which kept him out of the Senate almost a year -- gave him a new outlook on life. Wrote Kirk: "I want my life to count for something more than the honors I once craved. I believe it will. My faith is stronger. My humility is deeper. I know I depend on family and friends more than I ever realized. I know, too, that the things that divide us in politics are infinitesimal compared with the dignity of our common humanity."

Kirk's journey continues.


WASHINGTON--In a reversal, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) announced on Tuesday that he backs gay marriage saying in a statement released on his Senate web site Tuesday surviving his stroke opened his mind to have "greater respect for others."

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is also a supporter of gay marriage. Also on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) announced his backing of gay marriage. Illinois and Delaware legislatures currently have pending measures to legalize gay marriage.

Kirk opposed gay marriage when he was running for the Illinois Senate seat in 2009--when it could have been an issue in the 2010 GOP primary when he was worried about a challenge from the right.

Back in September, 2009, after Democratic Senate hopeful Alexi Giannoulias came out in support of same-sex marriage--and repeal of the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman--known as the Defense of Marriage Act--Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown asked about Kirk's position.

Wrote Brown, "Informed of Giannoulias' comments, a spokesman for Kirk offered a succinct response: "Congressman Kirk opposes gay marriage, supports the Defense of Marriage Act, and agrees with President Clinton's policy of "Don't Ask Don't Tell."

Once Kirk was the nominee--running against Giannoulias--he was still against gay marriage, saying in an Oct. 19, 2010 debate, "I-- I oppose gay marriage, and-- I support civil unions. But I also don't think we should have a federal takeover of all marriage law in the United States. I think the federal government is already trying to take over too much." (My post with the debate transcript is HERE)

Kirk, in his Tuesday statement said, "When I climbed the Capitol steps in January, I promised myself that I would return to the Senate with an open mind and greater respect for others.

"Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back-- government has no place in the middle," Kirk said.

Kirk defended Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady when his chairmanship was threatened recently because of his personal support for same sex marriage.

"Senator Kirk and Senator Carper have shown tremendous leadership in announcing their support for marriage equality," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement. The group is a major national lobbying organization for gay rights

"It is a sign of our progress that so many of their colleagues are showing the same political will. Democrat or Republican, there can simply be no excuse for standing on the wrong side of history when it comes to this basic question of justice," Griffin said.

"We continue to see the momentum behind marriage equality grow, especially among Republicans." said Rick Garcia, Director of the Equal Marriage Illinois Project and Policy Director for The Civil Rights Agenda in a statement. The group is the largest Illinois Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender civil rights advocacy organization.

"The momentum is stunning and we welcome it," Garcia said.

With the Senate out of session, Kirk is in Chicago this week.

WASHINGTON--Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is back in Illinois for the first time since returning to the Senate on Jan. 3 following an absence of almost a year following a stroke. Kirk was back in the state on Sunday, and on Monday, was taking meetings in his Chicago Senate office. Kirk, who has not made a sustained public appearance since his stroke--aside from climbing up the Senate stairs on Jan. 3--lunched Monday with GOP Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross and State Sen. Matt Murphy.

Also, Kirk presented a Legion of Merit award to Col. Joseph Noferi of north suburban Lincolnwood in a ceremony in his Loop office at 230 S. Dearborn.

WASHINGTON--Zachary Fardon is emerging as the likely nominee for U.S. attorney in Chicago, with his main rival for the pick, Lori Lightfoot, telling people she got a White House call a few days ago telling her she is out of the running, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

Fox 32 News reporter Larry Yellen is reporting that Fardon will get the nomination for the Northern District of Illinois spot.

President Barack Obama's team has been vetting potential contenders for the job, vacated by former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald last summer.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) ran a bi-partisan search committee and sent the White House four names for consideration last September, since whittled to two, Lightfoot and Fardon. The four --Fardon, Lightfoot, Jonathan Bunge and Gil Soffer--are all partners in Chicago law firms with experience as federal prosecutors in Chicago.

The search was started last July. The timing is up to the White House, which is vetting, or investigating the prospects before Obama taps a nominee. The next step is for the nomination to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee--of which Durbin is a member. From the time Obama sends a nominee to the committee to confirmation could take between two and four months.

Fardon specialized in public corruption cases as federal prosecutor in Chicago and Tennessee. His prosecuted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and his chief of staff, Scott Fawell. He is now a partner with the Chicago law firm of Latham & Watkins in Chicago. He received his undergraduate and law degree from Vanderbilt University.

Lightfoot is a former federal prosecutor in Chicago and former chief administrator at the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards. Lightfoot is a partner with the Chicago law firm with the Mayer Brown. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and her law degree from the University of Chicago Law School. She is the only woman and minority on the list.

Since Fitzgerald's departure, the interim U.S. attorney has been Gary Shapiro, who was Fitzgerald's second-in-command.

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama phoned Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) on Monday to discuss gun violence and deficit reduction, according to a White House official, with the call coming as Obama this week makes three trips to Capitol Hill to woo members of Congress.

Obama meets with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, House Republicans on Wednesday, Senate Republicans and House Democrats on Thursday.

Last week, Obama had dinner at a hotel here with 12 GOP senators, had Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) over to the White House for lunch, is making calls--such as the Kirk phoned--and, with the Capitol Hill visits, talking directly to members--not just their leader.

At the Monday briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney outlined Obama's broad agenda with these visits, seen as a "charm offensive" needed to try to remake congressional relations.

Obama will, Carney said, discuss "a range of priorities including, of course, conversations he's been having on budget-related issues, the need to reduce our deficit in a balanced way, but also immigration reform and the progress that's being made on that subject in a bipartisan way, efforts to move forward on actions to reduce gun violence -- also efforts that involve both Democrats and Republicans.

"Other items that are on his list of priorities include increasing our energy independence, the need to do something about the pace of nominations being confirmed and considered in the Senate -- judicial nominations, in particular -- as well as the need for Congress to take action on cybersecurity."

Obama basically discussed "legislative priorities" with Kirk, I was told.

Obama gave Kirk a cordial greeting when he saw him at as he entered the House chamber on Feb. 12 for his State of the Union speech. The president gave a fist bump to Kirk who returned to the Senate last January after an absence of nearly a year because of a stroke.

While Obama and Kirk served together in Congress, the two have never been particularly close. Kirk is seen by the Obama team as one of the Senate Republicans who may, on occasion work with the White House, for example on legislation to curb gun violence.

Kirk, along with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have championed legislation, on track to pass the Senate, to crack down on gun trafficking and fencing. However, Kirk, so far, has opposed a measure to require background checks for all gun buyers--though he has not closed that door.

"We are committed to continuing to work in a bipartisan effort with Senators Schumer, Coburn and others in order to find a commonsense solution for enhanced background checks, however, Senator Schumer's current proposal is one we cannot support as it stands today," Kirk said in a March 6 statement.

"Our goal is to pass a bill that will close loopholes in the current background check process in a way that does not burden law-abiding citizens. Any bill we support will guarantee that Americans' Second Amendment rights are clearly protected. We simply want to make sure firearms do not end up in the hands of convicted criminals or people who are deemed mentally unstable by court ruling.

"While the bill Senator Schumer introduced today doesn't meet this standard, we will continue to work with Senator Schumer, Senator Coburn and other colleagues to find a commonsense compromise."

WASHINGTON--When Sen. Mark Kirk spoke at the giant AIPAC conference on Monday night, he had the shortest speech of anyone at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee gala. The recovering stroke victim told the audience, tell the dictators in Iran "I'm back."

Now Kirk, who has long worked for tougher sanctions on Iran in order to prevent the nation from developing a nuclear weapon that could wipe Israel off the map, said in a video released on Wednesday that in the weeks ahead, he will be building a bi-partisan coalition to do even more. Kirk is aiming to "upgrade" sanctions by taking aim at crippling Iranian currency.

Kirk had his team produce a video on the need to crack down on Iran titled "Before It's Too Late," an allusion to the Holocaust. The 2:50 video--a cross between a documentary and news report--uses a professional narrator for most of the narration with Kirk providing several sound bites.

My post on Kirk and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) Iran currency sanctions proposal is HERE.

WASHINGTON--The Senate is poised to move the first bill to curb gun violence since the Newtown massacre, named for Chicago shooting victim Hadiya Pendleton, with Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk among the chief sponsors.

The bipartisan measure cracks down on gun-trafficking and straw purchases of firearms to get around background checks -- problems that have contributed to gun-related crimes in Chicago. At present, there is no federal law banning a person fronting a gun purchase to either sell or pass along the weapon to someone else.

"This bipartisan bill will crack down on the illegal trafficking of guns and impose strict punishments for straw purchasers. Buying a gun for another to use in a crime will mean a hard time-federal crime," Durbin, a Democrat, said in a statement.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear the bill on Thursday and it is expected to clear the panel and head to the Senate floor in April.

Although Congress is considering several other gun-related measures -- including the more controversial proposals to ban assault weapons and limit the number of bullets in a magazine -- the anti-trafficking/straw purchase crackdown bill will move as a stand-alone piece of legislation.

Other senators who help forge the bipartisan measure are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.); Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

While the bill has a good chance of Senate passage, it's fate in the House is not clear at this stage. The House may not take it up as a stand-alone measure and instead package it with other gun bills -- which would make it harder to create bipartisan support.

Hadiya Pendleton was shot to death in January in a park about a mile from President Barack Obama's Kenwood home.

Kirk, a Republican, said in a statement, "For Hadiya and thousands of other victims, my hope is we can break through the gridlock here in Washington to actually get something done to save lives."

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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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