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updated: 2/6/2012 5:22 AM

Durbin, other Democrats, reach across the aisle to keep Kirk's priorities moving

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  • Dick Durbin

      Dick Durbin

  • Mark Kirk

      Mark Kirk

 
 

Late in the evening on Nov. 3, 2010, it became clear Alexi Giannoulias was about to lose the race for President Obama's former Senate seat.

And so, a few minutes before 10:30 p.m., the Chicago Democrat placed a call from his election headquarters at the Fairmont Hotel to congratulate his opponent, Highland Park Republican Mark Kirk, formally putting an end to one of the most bitter, costly and most-watched races across the country.

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Standing beside him was Giannoulias' campaign manager, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who took the phone next.

"I said, 'Mark, the campaign ends tonight,'" Durbin recalled this week. "And he said, 'Exactly. Let's find ways to work together.'"

Durbin and Kirk -- who have pushed a bipartisan pro-Illinois agenda over the last 14 months serving in the upper chamber together -- have seen that symbiosis deepen in recent weeks, as the 52-year-old Kirk is hospitalized at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, recovering from a serious stroke suffered Jan. 21.

While Kirk is unable to cast votes, several of his priorities are moving ahead, in part thanks to cooperation between his office and those of several Senate Democrats. Along with Durbin, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Kirk's weekly lunch partner, are advancing some of Kirk's priorities.

Durbin, following news of Kirk's stroke, walked from his Capitol office to Kirk's office on the fifth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building to offer his assistance to Kirk's staff.

He described the group as "young, good people, hardworking people who were clearly in shock of the situation and the uncertainty of it."

"This is serious," Durbin said he told them, "but lucky for us he's young and healthy, and if you're a betting man you'd say Mark Kirk is going to make a full recovery."

Durbin told them about all the lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as Capitol Hill staffers, who had approached him to ask about Kirk's condition.

"There are people that work in the elevators that ask how he's doing," Durbin told Kirk's staff. "They really, genuinely care about your boss."

As Kirk is recovering, the Senate, meanwhile, has worked to help advance Kirk's priorities. The willingness from both sides of the aisle to help Kirk comes at a time when Washington politics are seen as increasingly partisan and caustic.

Durbin last week chaired a hearing on judicial nominees, introducing John "Jay" Tharp as a federal judge for Illinois' Northern District on Kirk's behalf.

Kirk in July recommended the appointment of Tharp, a Mayer Brown partner and trial lawyer, following the recommendation of a judicial review advisory panel he'd formed months before. Tharp's nomination is now expected to receive a Senate judiciary committee vote, followed by a full vote in the Senate.

Durbin's and Kirk's offices this week continued their push to protect air quality in the region.

Meanwhile, Blumenthal offered the Congressional Integrity and Pension Forfeiture Act on his and Kirk's behalf Wednesday as an amendment to the STOCK Act, aimed at eliminating the Congressional pensions of members of Congress convicted of committing a felony while serving as elected officials. It passed the upper chamber by a 96-3 vote Thursday evening.

The amendment, based on the Congressional Integrity and Pension Forfeiture Act of 2011, is a bipartisan proposal that expands existing law to cover 22 additional crimes, including insider trading. Kirk and his House successor, 10th District Republican Congressman Robert Dold of Kenilworth, together introduced that legislation last June.

Durbin describes the Senate's actions as "small things I know are largely symbolic, but I hope they help buoy his spirits."

In the meantime, Manchin, who visited Kirk last Friday, brought him cards "which all the senators signed," Durbin said.

Returning to Washington, Durbin said, Manchin checked in and detailed a number of "good, positive developments."

Manchin also spoke to Durbin about a piece of legislation close to Kirk's heart, as a naval reservist. The measure would help unemployed veterans find jobs.

"Joe said, 'I think we oughta move the bill,'" Durbin said. "I said, 'Let's do it.'"

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