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Sen. Mark Kirk backs gay marriage: ‘Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back’

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Updated: May 4, 2013 6:42AM

Offering a “huge” boost in the movement to legalize same sex marriage, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk came out in support of the issue on Tuesday, rankling some stalwarts in his own party but clearing a path for others to jump on board.

Kirk, 53, who returned to Congress in January after recovering from a stroke a year earlier, attributed his change of heart on the issue to having a brush with death. In a radio interview on Tuesday, the Highland Park Republican also revealed having been influenced by the movie “Lincoln” and watching the esteemed 16th president fight for the civil rights of his day.

“When I climbed the Capitol steps in January, I promised myself that I would return to the Senate with an open mind and greater respect for others,” Kirk said in a statement. “Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back — government has no place in the middle.”

For Illinois, Kirk’s statement couldn’t come at a more critical juncture.

Having the state’s highest-ranking — and one of the most popular — Republicans change his tune on the issue gives wavering state House Republicans comfort as well as ample political cover to vote for gay-marriage legislation, which already passed in the Illinois Senate. Kirk became just the second Republican in the U.S. Senate – the first was Rob Portman of Ohio — to back same-sex marriage.

“I think this is huge,” said state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the gay-marriage bill’s chief House sponsor, who would not commit to when he intends to call the legislation for a vote other than to say “sooner rather than later.”

“It’s a really clear signal this is not a city issue or a suburban issue or a Republican issue or Democratic issue any more,” Harris continued. “It’s simply the right thing to do.”

So far, only one House Republican — state Rep. Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove) — has publicly stated his support for the legislation.

But the Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that more Republicans were promising to come on board.

On Tuesday, multiple GOP sources said between three and five House Republicans ultimately could be on Harris’ side once the vote is taken. That would mean between 55 and 57 out of 71 House Democrats also would have to be “yes” votes for the bill to pass the House and move to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he would sign it.

That House GOP response would be similar to the November 2010 House vote to legalize civil unions, when six Republicans were part of the majority — though none of those six remain in the House today.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) told the Chicago Sun-Times Tuesday he wasn’t surprised by Kirk’s position in favor of gay marriage but stopped short of saying how or if it would move any of his members to get behind Harris’ bill.

“It’s not a big surprise coming from Mark. I think Mark’s image has been a very conservative guy on economic issues, and he has had a moderate approach [on social issues] throughout his time in Congress and his time in the Senate. I think publicly it’ll be seen as a tough call on his part, but I’m frankly not surprised by it.

“I think if you look at successful Republicans in this state over the last 25, 30 or 40 years, you’ve seen those who did well statewide have been more moderate. I think it’s kind of the place Mark has been, and it shouldn’t be a shock to folks,” Cross continued. “But I’m not sure what impact [his statement] is for our caucus.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) who spoke at the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday and warned that Washington could be headed for Springfield-like economic disaster, said state lawmakers would be better served to focus on Illinois’ fiscal mess.

“I respect his view, I don’t share his view,” Roskam said of Kirk. Roskam is the state’s second highest-ranking Republican. “I think the Republican tent is very big. The Republican tent is very compelling and a great invitation for all kinds of folks to get active in the GOP.”

Conservative Republican Chris Lauzen, Kane County Chairman and former longtime state senator, said he thinks Kirk’s position will not affect the debate in Springfield, arguing it’s a different dynamic Downstate.

Lauzen said Kirk’s position was a sad evolution for the party, accusing leaders of looking to political consultants and staffers rather than constituents.

“It’s sad that the leadership of our Republican party — and I know that Mark Kirk is much more of a political expert than I am — but they are divorcing themselves from the grass roots folks who voted them into office,” Lauzen said. “But I know it’s fashionable.”

Polls continue to show a strong majority of Illinoisans back same sex marriage.

While Kirk had earlier opposed gay marriage, his position has evolved.

Last month, for example, he was among the party’s senior leaders quietly making the rounds to drum up support for state GOP chief Pat Brady, whom conservatives wanted to oust because of his open support for gay marriage. Kirk made calls to the state’s central committee on behalf of Brady.

Kirk released a statement on his change of heart but in an interview with the Illinois Radio Network on Tuesday, he said that the movie “Lincoln” pushed him to pivot on the issue.

“I must say I was pretty influenced by the latest movie by Steven Spielberg about Abraham Lincoln,” he told IRN. “You just think as a Republican leader, my job is to make sure that each generation is more free and has more dignity as an individual which is a unique gift of the United States to the world. The thought of treating a whole bunch of people just because of who they love differently is in my view against that Lincoln tradition, which was brought so well to life by the movie.”

One state House Republican who intends to vote for the legislation but has not made his intentions public yet told the Sun-Times there was a group of Republicans who did not want the issue to drag them down in a state where they are already struggling to get elected.

“I think Mark Kirk’s decision will give some fence-sitters more ease in making a decision in support of the legislation. Seems to me that no one wanted to be the one or two people in the whole Republican Party to be supporting it,” the lawmaker said.

“I know a lot of Republicans saying let’s get rid of some of these social issues. They’ve killed us the last couple of election cycles. The way this bill is in its form with the exemption for churches and other places of worship, it’s not as difficult a vote as it was six months ago.”

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