Sen. Mark Kirk is only a freshman, but he’s already emerging as an important foreign policy voice in the Senate with the nation now in a third war and turmoil spreading throughout the Middle East.
The hawkish and wonky moderate Republican from President Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois says he’s competing to be on the “second-string” of GOP experts on foreign policy after veterans such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), with whom he shares many positions and views.
But with Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) retiring, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) facing a tough primary and McCain in his 70s, Kirk appears poised for an even larger role in the not-too-distant future.
The 10-year House veteran hasn’t taken the usual freshman approach of laying low for a year or so.
“That may be a more successful strategy, but in general, the feeling is because you are representing a huge state, you are propelled by the folks back home,” Kirk said. And, he noted, “Chicago does not produce shrinking violets.”
Kirk, 51, didn’t waste time ruffling feathers. Shortly after being sworn in last year, he went to the floor and ripped START to the consternation of some of his elders.
“They were trying to interrupt me every two minutes,” he joked in an interview last week. But Kirk said he felt compelled to speak out on an issue he had spent a great deal of time on and was convinced would hurt national security.
Lately he’s been out front on a host of hot-button issues, particularly in the Middle East — calling early for military intervention in Libya, joining with Kyl in a stern rebuke of Syria’s violence against protesters and working across the aisle with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on legislation to tighten sanctions against Iran.
“He’s definitely one of the voices in our conference that people listen to on such matters and his background is very helpful,” Graham said.
Kirk also doesn’t fit in a partisan box.
“There are some of our colleagues who pretty well got their mind made up on a lot of issues — Mark is a guy that will listen to what you have to say. ... That really raises your status in the Senate. If your colleagues see you as open-minded, in a pretty divided body that makes you effective. You can hit above your weight.”
Will This Play in Peoria?
There aren’t too many first-year Senators who are followed around by a swarm of foreign policy reporters. But Kirk, in part because of his accessibility but also because of his obvious command of the issues, regularly attracts a crowd.
Kirk is still active as a reserve naval intelligence officer, and his résumé includes stints at the State Department, the World Bank and as a Congressional staffer.