A murky political subject has ultimately shed light on how an ailing U.S. senator has increased his legislative workload in recent months while spending his days at a Chicago rehabilitation center toiling to improve his walking ability.
While Mark Kirk is recovering from a serious stroke he suffered in January, the passage of recent sanctions on Iran sanctions -- and his urging of tougher restrictions -- indicate how he engages in policy issues despite his eight-month absence.
The Highland Park Republican, ranked late last month by Foreign Policy magazine as the 26th most powerful Republican in the nation on foreign policy, began holding videoconferences with staff over comprehensive Iran sanctions while he was still an inpatient at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, spokesman Andrew Flach said. Kirk moved out of the Rehab Institute early in May but continues to undergo outpatient therapy there.
Tough sanctions on Iran have been a hallmark issue for the former 10th District congressman and House International Relations Committee member.
As a freshman senator in 2011, Kirk led a six-month initiative to impose sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, culminating in legislation enacted last December. Just as he was preparing to press for further sanctions, Kirk suffered an ischemic stroke, affecting the left side of his brain and body. Recovering at home, he is unable to travel to Washington, D.C., to cast votes.
Staff members say Kirk's absence from Washington and intensive physical therapy regimen might have slowed the most recent piece of legislation, which ultimately passed in late July. But, between the collegial nature of the 100-member Senate and Kirk's determination to keep pressing the issue, work on an amendment has continued from afar, Flach said.
Kirk -- whose term ends in 2016 -- appears to be keeping himself poised to be the Senate's foreign policy hawk with Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar retiring at the end of this year.
"He worked more from his hospital bed on this than many senators do from their offices," said Mark Dubowicz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan national security think tank.
With Kirk giving direction between rehab sessions, Kirk's staff members drafted an amendment to the sanctions bill that shifted the debate toward tougher sanctions targeting Iran's energy and financial sectors, shipping and insurance.
As the bill moved forward, Kirk spoke by phone with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, discussing his view that the sanctions bill should be strengthened even further. McConnell spoke on the Senate floor in favor of the legislation in February, with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez carrying Kirk's ideas forward.
"It's a credit to Sen. Menendez for taking these ideas forward and a credit to Kirk for sharing the credit," Dubowicz said.
On the House side, Kirk's successor, 10th District Congressman Robert Dold, a Kenilworth Republican, and Republican Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehitan spoke out in favor of the amendment, as well.
Still, the final bill was a compromise of House and Senate versions negotiated behind closed doors.
"It's true there were ideas that Sen. Kirk had that didn't find their way in the final legislation in the form that he would have liked -- one idea was to impose an insurance embargo on Iran," Dubowicz said. "The language ... was probably not as tough as the original Kirk language that was introduced in the Senate, but again it was there and meaningful and impactful."
Kirk and Menendez have now begun sending a series of letters to the president about implementing the legislation.