CHICAGO — Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth went after Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk on Monday during the first debate of their U.S. Senate race, criticizing his judgment on national security issues and his “endless” controversial statements.
Kirk, who spoke far less than the Hoffman Estates Democrat and rarely challenged her, used the meeting before the Chicago Tribune editorial board to tout his record as a fiscal conservative and an independent, noting that he broke from his party to support gun control legislation and gay marriage.
The first-term senator from Highland Park is seen as one of the Senate’s most endangered Republican incumbents in a year when Democrats could regain control of the Senate. Illinois, a left-leaning state, tends to elect Democrats in statewide contests, particularly in presidential election years.
Democrats need four or five Senate seats to win back the majority in November, depending on which party wins the White House and can send the vice president to break a tie.
Here’s a look at some of the issues covered Monday:
Asked what federal lawmakers could do about Chicago’s increase in gun violence, Kirk said he has proposed legislation to reduce the availability of illegal guns.
The measure, which he co-sponsored with Democratic U.S. Sen. Kristin Gillibrand of New York, would crack down on stores that knowingly sell guns to people who provide the weapons those who can’t legally buy them. He said it’s aimed at a handful of gun stores that law enforcement officials say have sold a large portion of the guns used in Chicago shootings.
Duckworth said she supports gun control measures, such as banning assault weapons. But she said any solution also must include creating jobs in impoverished neighborhoods where unemployed young people are joining gangs as a way to make money.
Duckworth said she’d take a multipronged approach to the conflict in Syria, including “surgical air strikes” and pressing Russia and the Syrian government to abide by a ceasefire agreement.
The Iraq War veteran who was injured while serving also says the U.S. must put more pressure on allies that are attacking rebel forces.
Duckworth voted against arming Syrian rebels in 2014, while Kirk supported the measure, which President Barack Obama and others said would help the fight against the Islamic State group.
Kirk, a retired Navy intelligence officer, said he wants the U.S. to create a safe haven for Syrian refugees in Jordan, with the help of the Jordanian government.
Duckworth said the idea “doesn’t even make sense” and would require “a massive increase in U.S. forces.”
“We can’t just be a nation that continually sends troops to war,” she said.
Kirk disagreed, saying it could be handled by the Navy and an air defense system and wouldn’t require “boots on the ground.”
Duckworth said too many people are weighed down by huge student loan debt and should be allowed to refinance to get a lower interest rate.
She also supports free community college. She couldn’t say how much that would cost or who would pay for it. But she said to start, private companies could pick up the cost of college programs in fields where they need more trained workers.
Kirk opposes letting people refinance student loans, and he said the U.S. can’t afford free college.
“I worry about creating a new entitlement program,” he said, adding that voters must elect lawmakers “that don’t promise more free stuff.”
Kirk says the best answer is to allow parents to make tax-deferred contributions to a college funding plan for their kids.
Duckworth said some of Kirk’s statements have been “irresponsible and not befitting of a U.S. senator.”
She noted he called Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is unmarried, a “bro without a ho” and said Obama was acting like the “drug dealer in chief” when the U.S. made a $400 million to Iran contingent on the return of U.S. prisoners.
Kirk apologized for the comment about Graham: “If I have too quick a turn of phrase, that’s just my bad.”
But he wouldn’t apologize for the statement about Obama, saying that payment amounted to a ransom and put Americans around the world at risk.