The increasingly bitter Illinois Senate campaign between Republican Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and the Democratic contender, Alexi Giannoulias, spilled over into foreign policy this week, as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman (D-CA) accused Kirk of exaggerating his role in crafting the Iran sanctions law. But who's really spinning the history of the bill for political gain?
Alluding to Kirk's previous misrepresentations about his military service, the Chicago Sun Times broke the story Monday with an article entitled, "Another Mark Kirk 'exaggeration'?" complete with a video of Kirk claiming credit for being a driving force behind what eventually became the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law in July.
"The Iran Sanctions Bill, it was originally Kirk-Andrews, but if you were going to move it, that means you need to adjust to the power of the House. This legislation eventually became Howard Berman's legislation," Kirk told the Sun Times.
The article then quoted Berman saying that his bill calling for petroleum sanctions against Iran had nothing to do with Kirk's previous bill calling for the exact same thing. "We didn't even look at his legislation at the time. Our bill did so much more and went so far beyond his bill, I would have to put it in the context of an exaggeration," Berman said.
Giannoulias, who enjoys Berman's support, called Kirk's claim that his bill was the framework for Berman's bill "egregious" and demanded an explanation.
But according to lawmakers, Congressional staffers, and outside groups who worked closely on the legislation, Kirk was in fact a key advocate for over four years of using gasoline and refined petroleum restrictions to pressure Iran to make concessions regarding its nuclear program.
In fact, Berman worked so closely with Kirk and others on the idea that media reports at the time acknowledged that Berman's Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, introduced in April 2009, borrowed language from related legislation introduced earlier by Kirk and Rep. Brad Sherman.
Even Democratic Congressional staffers gave Kirk credit for leading on the idea of petroleum sanction for Iran. They said that Berman's bill was clearly built off of Kirk's work, and criticized Berman for politicizing such a sensitive foreign policy issue.
"On this particular issue, Kirk has been a leader, if not the leader. When you talk about Iran petroleum sanctions, you talk about Mark Kirk," said one Democratic Hill staffer who worked on the bill.
"I'm all for a Democrat winning that seat, but this is not the way to do it," the staffer said. "It hurts our standing as Democrats in the pro-Israel community, because when you go to the pro-Israel community and say to them that Kirk didn't play a leading role, it just makes it hard to believe the next statement that comes out of our mouths."
Others who followed the progression of the Iran sanctions legislation closely also credited Kirk with a long history of leadership on this issue.
"There's no question that Mark Kirk was one of the first, if not the first member of Congress to advocate restricting the flow of gasoline to Iran as a way of pressuring Iran on its nuclear program," said Josh Block, who was the chief spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was intimately involved in the bill's legislative journey.
Block, who now runs a strategic communications firm with Democratic consultant Lanny Davis, said that, after years of building momentum on various versions of Kirk's proposal, the decision was made to transfer ownership of the bill to Berman in order to allow it to garner a vote and pass with leadership support.
"There was a progression of bills that all did virtually identical things," Block said, explaining that this is a normal and commonplace legislative strategy and that Berman does deserve credit for aiding in the final push.
Kirk started his formal advocacy for the petroleum sanctions idea in 2005, when he founded the Iran Working Group, a congressional group that gathered information on sanctions options. In June 2005, he and Rep. Rob Andrews first introduced a resolution calling for restrictions of gasoline to Iran (H.Con.Res.177). In June 2006, they introduced that resolution again (H.Con.Res.425).
In June 2007, Kirk and Andrews introduced a more comprehensive bill, called the Iran Sanctions Enhancement Act, which included restrictions on the importation of refined petroleum (H.R. 2880). In April 2009, after Obama took office, Andrews got cold feet so Kirk moved forward with Sherman and introduced the Iran Diplomatic Enhancement Act (H.R. 1985).
When Berman introduced his Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act at the end of April 2009, its original cosponsors included Kirk, as well as Andrews, Sherman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others. When the bill passed the House in December 2009, Berman didn't object when Kirk said on the House floor that he and Andrews were "the two grandfathers of this bill and its policy."
Kirk's staffers point out that Berman has a history of cooperating well with Kirk in non-election years and then turning on him when the campaign starts. For example, Berman stumped for Kirk's opponent when Kirk first ran for an open seat in 2000 and then again endorsed his opponent in 2008. Still, they lament that years of cooperation on Iran have been reduced to a war of words over who gets credit.
"This is a desperate move by a desperate candidate with no foreign policy chops of his own," Kirk spokesman Richard Goldberg said about Giannoulias' efforts to make an issue of the Iran bill. "With no record to stand on, Alexi Giannoulias recruited someone with a history of hyper-partisan behavior just before an election to contradict his own previous statements when the legislation passed and level untruths against a well-established leader on the issue of Iran sanctions."
Berman's office did not respond to requests for comment.