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Chicago Tribune Editorial: Why Won't Mark Kirk Lead on Immigration Reform?

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Yesterday Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) came out in favor of the Gang of 8 Senate immigration bill, making her the first non-Gang of 8 Republican to do so.  Today, the Chicago Tribune has a great editorial calling out its junior Senator, Republican Mark Kirk, for not yet taking a similar stance.  Illinois’ senior Senator Dick Durbin (D) has been a longtime champion of immigration reform and the DREAM Act.  But where’s Mark Kirk?

As the editorial continues, it makes the case for why immigration reform is important and wonders why Sen. Kirk can’t be more of a leader on the issue:

Kirk’s name invariably appears on the short list of moderate Republican senators who could help provide the handful of votes necessary to defeat a filibuster. But he’s still uncommitted.

He’s been lobbied endlessly by immigrants who want to live and work here legally, and by businesses that want to hire them. He represents a state in which immigrants accounted for more than half the population growth measured in the last U.S. census.

But his office is still offering the same tired statement: “Sen. Kirk has long said that any immigration reform proposal must first restore the American people’s confidence in their government’s ability to control the border. Once that confidence is restored, Sen. Kirk believes bipartisan reform can improve our broken immigration system. Sen. Kirk will closely review the bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee with these principles in mind.”

That’s a disappointingly passive position from Kirk, who could be a game-changer in this debate. Our immigration system, to quote Ayotte, “is unworthy of a great nation.” It must be fixed. If Kirk isn’t ready to support the bill, he should be actively working to make it better, not waiting to see if he likes the finished product. He’s come out in favor of citizenship for immigrants who are combat veterans. That’s not going to move the ball.

Here’s the math:

Supporters are counting on all but two or three of the 54 Democratic caucus votes. Call it 51.

Then there are the four Republicans who helped write the legislation, assuming — as we are — that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida isn’t flirting with defection. That’s 55.

Ayotte makes 56. The magic number is 60.

Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Dean Heller (Nevada) are frequently mentioned, along with Kirk, as likely supporters. Ten or 12 other Republicans are considered “gettable.”

As recently as late May, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was talking about 70 votes. But it’s Rubio, not Reid, who can deliver the crucial votes — and last week Rubio sounded like he had one foot out the door. Rubio said he won’t vote for the bill unless it’s amended on the floor to include tougher enforcement measures. Sound familiar?

Rubio has known all along that the bill would be a tough sell. For starters, it’s the top legislative priority of President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Its approach, known as comprehensive immigration reform, attempts to balance security concerns against the nation’s labor needs while addressing the legal status of 11 million immigrants who are here without permission.

Many conservatives don’t want to talk about legalizing immigrants until the border has been sealed, period. The bill attempts to compromise by setting security benchmarks that must be met before those immigrants can apply to be legal residents.

The bill survived the Judiciary Committee mostly intact, despite being shelled by more than 300 proposed amendments. Some of them were designed to improve the bill. Some of them were designed to kill it.

That’s why Rubio doesn’t believe the current measure will fly. But he’s committed, he says, to strengthening the bill’s border security provisions to “earn our colleagues’ trust.”

The problem is that senators who demand greater border security before they’ll support the bill fall into two camps: the ones who can be satisfied, and the ones who can’t. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

The bill already contains up to $6.5 billion more to lock down the border, even though illegal crossings are at their lowest levels in decades. That’s partly because our economy has been poor while Mexico’s improved, but it’s also because we’ve spent billions ramping up border security since 2006, the last time the enforcement-first crowd balked at comprehensive reform.

The nation needs immigration reform. It needs leadership.

Again we ask: Where is Sen. Mark Kirk?

We hope this is just the start for home-state editorials pushing their Senators to do the right thing on immigration reform — and that those Senators actually do the right thing.