Congress Watch: Kirk Again


Kirk Signs Open Letter to Iran; Goes Along with Republican Leadership on Abortion Restrictions and Anti-Immigrant Homeland Security Funding Bills

By Barbara Altman

It’s early days for the 114th Congress, but already Illinois’ Republican Senator Mark Kirk has made it clear that he does not plan to behave like the thoughtful independent he claims to be.  Nor has he demonstrated any intent to exert a moderating influence on the right-wing controlled Republican caucus.

Three cases in point for this month’s column: 1) the Republicans’ unprecedented interference in U.S. negotiations with a foreign government by writing An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2) their effort to restrict the right of victims of human trafficking from terminating unwanted pregnancies, and 3) their failed attempt to extort President Barack Obama into abandoning his executive actions on immigration by attaching a poison pill to the bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security.

Kirk and the Open Letter to Iran

“An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” dominated much of the news in March.  It essentially announced to the Iranian government and the rest of the world that there is no point in negotiating with an American President because the Congress, or a future President, might just abrogate any agreement reached. All but seven of the 54 Senate Republicans signed the letter.  So did Mark Kirk.

Spearheaded by 37-year-old senator-since-January Tom Cotton (R-AR), the letter is childish in both its tone and its content.   It is less than one-fifth the length of this column, so you can read all 271 words and draw your own conclusions.

The letter begins with a decidedly condescending tone:   “It has come to our attention … that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.”  It ends on the same note:  “We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system.”

And what is the main point about our Constitution the letter seeks to convey?  Not that it includes a Bill of Rights that protects the individual rights of our people.  And certainly not that the Constitution gives the U.S. President the power to conduct our foreign policy.  No, the main point about the Constitution is that the current U.S. President, Barack Obama, has only two more years in office:  “For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades.”

Read those two sentences aloud.  Are you hearing in your head a final “nyaah, nyaah, nyaah, nyaah, nyaah”?

Can Mark Kirk really believe that it is in the interest of the United States to tell the world that our nation should not be expected to abide by any international agreement it enters into because our president is term-limited?  It appears that Senator Kirk didn’t give signing onto such a statement much thought.  Shortly after the letter was issued, he was quoted in the March 12 edition of The Washington Post as remarking, “The letter has been a surprising controversy that came up.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) called the letter “virtually unprecedented,” “cynical,” and “a new low.”  He said that it “weakens America’s hand and highlights our political divisions to the rest of the world.”  Durbin continued, “Understand that if these negotiations fail, a military response to Iran developing their nuclear capability becomes more likely. These Republican Senators should think twice about whether their political stunt is worth the threat of another war in the Middle East.”

Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), a sometime critic of the President’s foreign policy, agreed. “We can and should and must disagree with the president… but when war holds in the balance and specifically when nuclear war hangs in the balance should members of the United States Senate be in the position of publicly undermining the president of the United States to our enemies” she said.

Apparently Senator Kirk had no compunction about publicly undermining the President of the United States to our enemies.  After his initial surprise at the “controversy that came up” dissipated, he issued a statement in which he tried to justify his action by expressing concern that the Obama administration, along with an international coalition that includes the U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia, may negotiate a bad deal: “A better deal, with bipartisan congressional backing, is the best insurance policy against a nuclear Iran, a destructive arms race, and war in the Middle East.”  But the letter Kirk signed has hurt bipartisan efforts in the Senate to assert greater influence on the negotiations, and Debbie Stabenow is not the only senator who has been critical of the President on Iran to say so.  As Tim Kaine (D-VA) said, the open letter to Iran “weakens our president, weakens our country, weakens our credibility.”

Turning from policy to politics, Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, called the letter “a stunt rather than a strategy,” positing that many who signed did so unthinkingly, for no other reason than because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did.
I doubt that many of the voters in Illinois’ 10th District who supported Mark Kirk when he ran for the Senate in 2010 expected him to do whatever Mitch McConnell does.

The more I think about the irresponsible behavior of these Senators, the more I realize that the scariest sentence in the open letter Mark Kirk signed may be the one that says that he and the other signatories could remain in the Senate for decades.  We should make it our business to make sure that Mark Kirk doesn’t remain in the Senate beyond 2016.

Kirk on Reproductive Rights of Victims of Human Trafficking

In mid-March, Kirk voted to bring to the floor anti-trafficking legislation to which fellow Republicans had added new abortion restrictions.

For decades, Congress has prohibited federally-appropriated funds from being used to pay for an abortion.  However, the anti-trafficking legislation is not funded by appropriations; the money to help victims of human trafficking comes from the traffickers, themselves in the form of court-ordered fines and forfeitures.  Adamant that victims of sexual trafficking should be free to terminate unwanted pregnancies, Democrats have been filibustering the Republican bill, demanding that the abortion restrictions be removed.  On March 17, 18, and 19, Senator Kirk voted five separate times to end the filibuster.

If Kirk were for reproductive choice and against human trafficking, as he often claims, he wouldn’t be trying to get this particular bill to the floor.  Democrats are against human trafficking, but they oppose this legislation because it is anti-choice.  Without the new abortion restrictions Republicans tacked on, the anti-trafficking legislation would pass with a large, bipartisan majority.  By his refusal to break with his caucus on March 17, 18, and 19, Kirk once again showed that he elevates party over policy.

Kirk on Immigration

The big news out of Congress in February was the near-shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security on February 27.  If you wondered where Senator Mark Kirk stood during that crisis, you wouldn’t be alone.  Mostly, he missed votes.

Some quick background.  In 2012, President Obama implemented DACA.  Standing for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA essentially provides legal status for certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and have lived here continuously, are in school or have a high school diploma or an honorable discharge from the armed services, and have no significant criminal record.

A year later, in June of 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would have codified some of what DACA has done for undocumented young people.   Back then, Senator Kirk voted for the immigration reform bill, and he touted this vote in a press release that began, “U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) today applauded Senate passage of a bipartisan immigration reform bill that first secures the border and then creates a tough but fair path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.”  But the bipartisan bill died when Kirk’s fellow Republicans refused to bring it up for a vote in the House.

Then, last November, the President announced a second program, DAPA (either Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and legal permanent residents or Deferred Action for Parental Accountability).  DAPA (whose implementation is on hold pending further court action) would protect from deportation certain undocumented immigrants who have a child who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, as long as the immigrant parent meets certain criteria, including passing a background check.

We all know what happened next.  With majorities in both houses of Congress, Republicans decided to use the need to fund the Department of Homeland Security as leverage to shut down DACA and DAPA. Although the House easily passed the bill that wed an anti-immigration reform poison pill to funding Homeland Security, filibusters kept the bill from coming to a vote in the Senate.

DACA and DAPA further the same policies as the immigration reform bill that Senator Kirk supported in 2013, support that, at the time, he deemed worthy of a self-congratulatory press release.  So one might think he would stand up in favor of DACA and DAPA.

However, on February 5, the first time Republicans tried to break the Democrats’ filibuster of the DACA/DAPA-destroying Homeland Security funding bill that had passed the House, Mark Kirk was right there, voting with his party.  That is, Senator Kirk joined the Republican effort to get the House bill through the Senate and to the President’s desk, to force the President to kill programs fully consistent with the same immigration reforms that Kirk announced he supported in June 2013.

After that cloture vote failed (despite Kirk’s joining in with his anti-immigrant caucus), there were no fewer than three additional tries as Democrats held firm.  For each subsequent unsuccessful cloture vote, Senator Kirk is listed as “not voting.”

Whether something kept Kirk from the floor during these roll calls, or he simply ducked out to avoid difficult votes, one thing is certain:  Mark Kirk failed to take a principled stand on this important issue.  He showed no support for the immigration reforms he claimed to be for in 2013, and he issued no statement to explain his stance (or lack thereof).

The 10th District—indeed, all of Illinois—deserves better.


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