From the Sunday edition:
Editor's note: Here's a longer, director's cut version of our Sunday story on U.S. Sen.-elect Mark Kirk.
By Rick Pearson, Tribune reporter
On the eve of becoming Illinois’ newest U.S. senator, Republican Mark Kirk says he plans an ambitious agenda focused on federal spending cuts while working to keep the state a transportation center by improving O’Hare International Airport and building high-speed rail.
The five-term North Shore congressman shifts to the Senate as a beneficiary of this month’s Republican wave that’s expected to create a sharp partisan divide next year. Kirk warned that the GOP can only be successful by uniting around money issues, such as the nation’s economy and growing deficit, rather than splitting over social policies that traditionally have created rancor between moderates and conservatives.
“We need to focus on issues where we all agree, which is spending discipline and control and making sure that government, both in Springfield and in Washington, doesn’t take more from your family budget,” Kirk, a social moderate, said during an interview prior to departing for the nation’s capital.
“Nearly every Republican, an overwhelming number of independents and a lot of Democrats agree with that, and (Republicans should) stay away from some of the more divisive issues in which we don’t have consensus.”
On Friday, Kirk formally submitted his resignation from the House, effective at 3 p.m. Monday Chicago time — 90 minutes before he is scheduled to be sworn in by Vice President Joseph Biden to fill out the remainder of President Barack Obama’s unexpired Senate term.
The Navy Reserve intelligence officer will take the oath on the 1827 Bible of David Farragut, the nation’s first Navy admiral. Farragut led Union forces in the Civil War in one battle by lashing himself to his warship’s rigging and declared, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.”
That famed military expression may express the anxious nature of Republicans who won control of the House and severely eroded Democratic control of the Senate: Questions remain as to whether bipartisan accommodations can be made or if partisan fighting over the 2012 presidential race will dominate the agenda in Washington.
Kirk will be seated during the final days of the lame-duck session after winning a court-ordered special election to replace appointed Democratic Sen. Roland Burris.
The Republican said his chief concern for the final days of the Democratic-controlled Congress is to ensure that tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush do not expire.
Kirk contended Illinois families could face a “double whammy” if the Bush tax cuts expire Dec. 31 without a bipartisan agreement in Congress and if Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn finally gets his long-sought state income tax increase.
Looking to achieve bipartisanship in the highly partisan atmosphere of Washington, Kirk said he believes Republicans next year could support raising the nation’s debt ceiling in exchange for spending reforms that would produce guaranteed cuts and future savings.
The debt ceiling vote is considered a major test for Republicans in the new Congress because their House majority was created in part by the tea party movement that pushed less government influence and lower taxes and spending. Already, some GOP leaders are warning incoming lawmakers that a government shutdown is not an acceptable solution.
“The key question is, if we (Republicans) provide our vote, what iron-clad, anti-spending reforms are locked into place so that future extensions of the debt are unnecessary?” Kirk asked.
“For those of us who want to accomplish something for the country, we need to come up with a list — and I’ll be working on this all of the month of December —of anti-spending reforms which are locked into place so we are dramatically lowering the appetite of the federal government over the future,” he said.
Such reforms, he said, would include a recreation of the Reagan-era private sector survey on cost control, known as the Grace Commission, to recommend ways to trim the deficit and seek efficiencies from government. Kirk also said he would grant such a panel military-base closing powers, contending the Armed Forces aren’t immune from having to face spending reductions.
At the same time, Kirk said he will work with Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, on Illinois initiatives that include attempts to “maintain momentum” for the controversial O’Hare modernization project. Kirk said the two also will support efforts to attract federal funding for high-speed rail initiatives in Illinois. Some newly-elected Republican governors are rejecting federal high-speed rail funding.
Kirk acknowledged that the divisions in the new Congress also would create the likelihood that House Republicans will vote to repeal the president’s signature health-care form measure, but that the Senate Democratic majority and Obama will prevent it from being overturned. Still, Kirk questioned whether reforms could be enacted to correct what he called some of the law’s “most egregious problems,” including allowing a provision to let states opt out of its mandates.
Having gained a narrow victory over Democrat Alexi Giannoulias in an expensive, negative and often-times personal campaign, Kirk said he will enter the Senate “with all humility” and not with a mandate.
“Forty-eight percent of Illinois voters voted for me, 46 percent voted for my chief opponent and we had a tough election. But the voters of Illinois made a decision. Now, my job is to go into the Senate and fight for everybody,” Kirk said.
-- The Chicago Tribune