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Article updated: 2/26/2013 9:15 AM

Illinois senators at center of rocky vote on Hagel

Durbin, Kirk in middle of confirmation fight

By Kerry Lester

Illinois' two U.S. senators not only have divergent views on the Obama administration's nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary but are playing major roles in the rocky confirmation process.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat and the Senate majority whip, has made impassioned pleas in support of the former Nebraska Republican senator and worked to secure the votes needed.

Kirk, a moderate Highland Park Republican considered to be one of the Senate's foreign policy hawks, has been one of the most outspoken Republicans against the selection, going so far as to distribute anti-Hagel literature to colleagues on the Senate floor.

While Kirk and Durbin have not directly spoken to one another about the issue, it is the first public clash for the Illinois senators since Kirk's return in January after a yearlong recovery from a serious stroke.

Durbin, who as majority whip needed five Republican votes in addition to 55 Democratic votes for Hagel to clear a procedural hurdle, said two weeks ago he "sent over a friend," whom he declined to name, to try to get Kirk's vote.

That wasn't to be, and after falling one vote short, a vote on Hagel's confirmation was postponed for a week, as Republicans' action served as a public objection to a process they described as rushed.

Kirk has remained strongly anti-Hagel, a position, Durbin said, he didn't fully understand but respected.

"I'll leave it to Mark to decide which issues are worth the effort, and this has meant a lot to him," Durbin said.

The Senate is expected to vote again on the issue in the coming days.

Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, has gotten flak from Republicans for his criticism of the Bush administration and his endorsement of Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

In a statement, Kirk rebuked Hagel for describing the Iranian government as elected and legitimate during his confirmation hearing, and for his past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran.

Kirk noted that while he respected Hagel's military service, he could not support his nomination.

Kirk, who spent 10 years representing the heavily Jewish 10th Congressional District, has made tough Iran sanctions a hallmark issue -- something he worked on even from a hospital bed as he was recovering from the stroke he suffered in January 2012.

Kirk and Durbin, while on opposite sides of the aisle, have made a public point of agreeing on a "pro-Illinois" agenda -- including on judicial nominations, O'Hare Airport expansion and the cleanup of Lake Michigan.

Despite initial opposition, Hagel is expected to be confirmed by the Senate. Several Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, announcing they'll be changing their cloture votes to affirmative.

"I can't understand why we didn't get this done before the break," Durbin said. "It really is puzzling, troubling, that his former Republican colleagues are his harshest critics. I understand they may have some difference with him, but we pride ourselves on our independence in the Senate."

Vote: Hagel expected to be confirmed anyway

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