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Sweet: Sen. Mark Kirk positioned to weather Scalia uproar

There are ways U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who's facing a tough re-election fight, can use the battle over filling the Supreme Court vacancy to his advantage. | Spencer Green/AP file photo

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WASHINGTON — I don’t see Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is facing a tough re-election battle, sweating over the red-hot politics following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Kirk won’t be moved to show his hand at least until after Scalia is buried. There are even ways he can use the battle over filling the Scalia vacancy to his advantage.

Kirk’s past moves provide plenty of clues of what he will do.

Keep in mind when gaming out Kirk: He puts a premium on protecting and enhancing his independent brand while Democrats portray him as a Republican loyal to his GOP Senate leadership. Kirk likes to highlight his exceptions, and what he does with the Scalia vacancy will likely be one of them.

First, some background: Shortly after the news broke that Scalia died Saturday at a West Texas resort, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sent out a statement that said President Barack Obama should not nominate a replacement to fill the spot, leaving it for the next president.

McConnell’s quick reaction ignited controversy — after all, McConnell jumped in the political fray only a few hours after Scalia died. The notion that Obama, with about 300 days left in office, should not send a nominee to the Senate — or that the Senate would never consider that candidate by holding hearings and a vote — only enraged Democrats.

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Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., the front-runner in the three-way March 15 Illinois Senate primary, has been pushing Kirk to say whether he backs McConnell’s gambit.

“I’d like to hear from him,” Duckworth told the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board on Tuesday at joint interview session with rivals attorney Andrea Zopp and state Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey.

Kirk can’t be faulted for not rushing to talk politics until after Scalia’s funeral. A few days won’t make any difference. Scalia will lie in repose at the Great Hall of the Supreme Court on Friday. The funeral will be held Saturday.

Now, what’s likely ahead for Kirk:

He implicitly took a shot at McConnell when he declined to close ranks with him when Kirk said in a statement: “The political debate erupting about prospective nominees to fill the vacancy is unseemly. Let us take the time to honor his life before the inevitable debate erupts.”

McConnell did Kirk — who has to run in Obama’s adopted home state, where he is popular — no favor by taking the extreme position that Obama should not appoint a nominee. That’s process over substance.

Looking ahead to November, when he will be wooing independent and swing Democratic voters, Kirk would be guilty of political malpractice if he said Obama should not at least send a name to the Senate.

On Tuesday, Obama reaffirmed at a press conference that he would nominate, “in due time, a very well-qualified candidate.” Obama said Republican senators will be “under a lot of pressure” as he asked them to “rise above day to day politics.”

Kirk’s primary opponent, Oswego software consultant Jim Marter, is running to Kirk’s right. Marter’s backers already have a long list of beefs with Kirk, so what he does on Scalia won’t change anything.

So in time, Kirk will likely say Obama is entitled to a nominee who deserves a hearing and a vote. Kirk’s past helps in forecasting his future on Scalia. When he was running for his first Senate term in 2010, Kirk said if he were in the Senate he would vote to confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. That would have made him a GOP outlier. Kagan was confirmed on a 63-27 vote, with only five Republicans voting yes.

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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