Odd couple: Durbin holds his fire as Kirk rips lawyers

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A question about a Democratic pay equity bill that failed in the Senate last week triggered a tirade from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., against Democratic trial lawyers while Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sitting next to him, silently stared at his hands, mute as a result of their non-aggression pact.

Last month, I reported that Kirk said he would not campaign for longshot GOP Senate nominee Jim Oberweis because he wanted to protect his “relationship with Dick” and not launch “into a partisan jihad that hurts our partnership to both pull together for Illinois.”

Kirk’s comments were a gift to Durbin; they got play in every broadcast media market in Illinois, the best kind of free media.

Meanwhile, Kirk got a thumping on some conservative Illinois blogs and radio talk shows for promoting Durbin and snubbing Oberweis, perhaps inspiring a GOP primary rival in 2016, when Kirk is up for re-election.

Since Kirk returned to the Capitol after an absence of nearly a year because of a stroke, the relations between the Illinois senators have grown warmer.

RELATED: Obama, Republicans compete for support among women

I asked Durbin his reaction to Kirk’s kind words.

“The fact that he said he was not going to get actively involved in opposing me, I called him and thanked him,” Durbin told me.

Does that mean in 2016, Durbin will return the favor?

“I have to win my election first. He has to make a decision about his re-elect. And so there are several steps ahead of us here. But I certainly start off any future campaign involving Sen. Kirk with a very positive feeling about our working relationship. I think it is good for Illinois,” Durbin said.

With that as a backdrop, let’s go to pay equity, an issue congressional Democrats and the White House are using to rally female voters and jab at Republicans. GOP senators derailed the Paycheck Fairness Act last Wednesday on a 53-44 vote, with 60 votes needed for the measure to advance. Durbin voted yes, Kirk no.

The legislation does several things, including installing an employer ban on retaliating if employees choose to share wage information and makes it easier for workers to sue employers in wage sex discrimination cases.

Durbin and Kirk were together at an Illinois constitutient coffee on Thursday when Chicago attorney Laurel Bellows, a past president of the American Bar Association, asked a question about the stalled measure in the most neutral way possible.

Bellows noted that a group of GOP female senators were working to address Republican concerns.

“Is there something,” Bellows said, “that will pass the Senate?”

Kirk chose to not discuss the amendment crafted by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. — which Democrats bottled up — and launched the attack on trial lawyers, whose ranks produce major Democratic donors.

“I would have to say that this legislation is probably the most sexist legislation you can have against women,” Kirk said, because it allows trial lawyers “to take control of your sex discrimination case” and as a result “this very well-connected, I would say likely Democratic Party-connected lawyer, comes in and takes control of your case . . . and a right to one-third of your recovery, that would be the ultimate sexism.”

Over the weekend, I called Bellows, who was back in Chicago and asked what she thought of Kirk’s reply.

“I was devastated by his response,” Bellows told me.

“Republican and Democratic women alike must have the ability to discuss their pay in the workplace” and if not paid the same as a male doing the same work, “they should have the right to go to court.”

And Durbin — what did he say when Kirk was done?

“Interesting. Right? Next question.”

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