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updated: 8/26/2011 8:40 AM

Bipartisanship when it matters to Illinois

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By Daily Herald Editorial Board

Tradition would dictate that Dick Durbin, being a Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican, sit on opposing sides of the House chamber for the president's State of the Union address. So last January, when the two senators from Illinois and a handful of others in Congress announced they would sit side by side, Washington was astir. Was this a sign of more harmonious negotiations in the coming session?

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Unfortunately, the display of comity didn't last, on the grand scale at least, dissolving into a bitter, partisan debate over the nation's financial woes. But for Kirk and Durbin, a refreshing, symbiotic relationship has largely remained above the fray. Since Kirk's swearing-in last fall, their cooperation on issues that benefit Illinois has provided a model of bipartisanship missing elsewhere at the federal level.

That's not to say the two don't disagree on some fundamental issues, in particular the two biggies: spending and taxes. While each has attempted to reach across the aisle, both have stuck largely to their respective parties' philosophies during budget talks. And one of Kirk's first key votes was against the DREAM Act, an initiative pushed by Durbin.

In separate interviews recently with the Daily Herald editorial board, the senators acknowledged a history of political animosity that began as Durbin fought against Kirk's congressional campaigns and even harder in the 2010 Senate race. After the election, however, the two made amends. Kirk said he walked into the senior senator's office, and Durbin said, "Mark, let's bury the hatchet," immediately offering support for several of Kirk's initiatives.

Durbin agreed their working relationship is "dramatically better than either one of us would have expected," adding that he hoped Kirk also had stated that. (He did.)

One would hope these statements go beyond pledges of cooperation that often end up as cheap political currency in times of strife. Actions in this first year suggest they do. Together, the senators have sponsored several bills promoting the well-being of Illinois including legislation to protect the Great Lakes from sewage.

In March they brokered a deal between Chicago and airlines that allowed O'Hare modernization to move forward, and they held a hearing on the state's nuclear safety. Also working in tandem, Kirk and Durbin secured $400 million for high-speed rail in Illinois after Florida rejected the money.

While it's not unusual for opposite-party senators to champion causes that benefit their home states, a warming relationship between Kirk and Durbin couldn't be timed better. Illinois needs scarce federal funds; Congress needs examples of bipartisanship.

While there will be sticking points -- and it's healthy that there are -- the pair's collaboration despite ideological differences is heartening. Their efforts on Illinois' behalf are evidence that putting people above party is possible.

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