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He can rattle off the names of Iranian dissidents with ease and talks with passion about fairly obscure issues such as the persecuted Baha’i minority in Iran. He’s trying to get the Obama administration to highlight the names of those dissidents in much the same way presidents talked about dissidents in the old Soviet Union, as a way of delegitimizing the Iranian regime.
He’s also working with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to create a bipartisan U.S.-China working group in the Senate as he had in the House, where he founded and co-chaired a group that has grown to 70 members.
In his spare time, he’s planning a Congressional delegation targeting piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Kirk said that while he and his constituents are also focused on the economy and the deficit, war trumps everything. His regular stints of Naval Reserve active duty give him “a very granular view of the big wars and more importantly the little ones,” he said.
“There’s an undeclared war going on in Somalia. There’s an undeclared war going on in Yemen,” he said. He added, “once you serve in the military” and have seen the “death of Americans in battle in poorly designed missions, your emotional involvement becomes very high.”
Kirk said Americans in the heartland bring up Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt and other foreign policy hot spots regularly at town halls.
He said he has often heard the phrase, “Will this play in Peoria?”
“Well I represent Peoria,” he said. “Foreign policy is not absent, and it has the potential to dominate the discussion. It really is on the minds of people in the heartland.”
For now, Kirk said he’s working to push his ideas — such as tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime or more robust rules of engagement for the war in Libya — regardless of whether he gets credit for them.
“In the House I spent five years to get the bill through that was basically intended to collapse Iran’s supply of foreign gasoline,” he said. He worked with a succession of Democratic co-sponsors, and the bill eventually had Democratic Rep. Howard Berman’s (Calif.) name on it, but Kirk said that was fine.
“My philosophy was just get it done, and we did. ... If you’re OK with it, you are going to be increasingly effective,” he said of sharing the credit. But he acknowledged, “four years from now I’m going to be more about getting the credit” as he gears up for re-election.
Kirk has also tried regularly to team up with Democrats — like Gillibrand on Iran or the senior Senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, on many home-state issues and on nuclear power.
“My experience as a Congressional staffer is bipartisan is the way to be effective,” he said. Kirk’s first job on the Hill was as a staffer for his predecessor, then-Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), where he moved up to become chief of staff three years after being hired. He later served as counsel to the House International Relations Committee.
Kirk and Durbin had a meeting to bury the hatchet after Kirk’s victory last fall, and the two say they’ve been pleasantly surprised working with each other.
Durbin doesn’t begrudge Kirk’s early outspokenness.