WASHINGTON – Nearly a year after a major stroke forced Sen. Mark Kirk to re-learn how to walk, he plans to scale 45 steps at the Capitol on Thursday morning to attend the start of the new Congress.
Kirk, a 53-year-old Republican, is expected to be welcomed on the steps by two prominent Democrats: Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Dick Durbin, Kirk’s Illinois colleague.
“It’s going to be emotional for a lot of people,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who was the first Illinois lawmaker to visit a recovering Kirk back in March. “We’ve all been waiting a long time, we’ve been cheering him on, we’ve been praying for him.”
Shimkus said he expects two “wow” reactions from onlookers. Some will say “wow” because they’ll be surprised that the stroke “took that much out of him,” and others will say “wow” because they “can’t believe how great he looks,” he said.
Kirk, who suffered his stroke in Illinois last Jan. 21, recently moved into a handicapped-accessible apartment on Capitol Hill and made a surprise appeaback trance in his Senate offices Dec. 20 at a staff holiday party, said Lance Trover, his communications director. Kirk plans to continue his rehabilitation in Washington, Trover said.
The senator, who suffers impairment on his left side, uses a four-pronged cane to walk, but will rely on a wheelchair to cover long distances in the Capitol, Trover said. Kirk is blind in one quadrant of his left eye, the aide said.
Kirk’s walk up the steps to the Senate door is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Thursday. As many as 100 well-wishers are expected to attend, according to a Senate official who said that several days ago a walk-through was held with Kirk staffers and an advance person for Biden to scope out an “iconic picture” for photographers on hand. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kirk aides said four medical professionals, including the senator’s neurosurgeon, will participate in a news conference Thursday in Washington soon after the senator’s climb. Kirk is not expected to make public remarks Thursday from the Senate floor, Trover said.
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, will walk the steps with Kirk, and the two will meet privately later in the day, Durbin spokeswoman Christina Mulka said.
Thursday is swearing-in day for the new class of more than 30 senators. Kirk took the oath of office in November 2010, with Biden presiding, and does not need to be sworn in again.
Kirk’s return to the Capitol comes two months after his celebrated 37-story climb to reach the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago on Nov. 4. He declined a Chicago Tribune request Wednesday for an interview previewing his Washington homecoming.
After his stroke, Kirk underwent three brain surgeries at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Shimkus said he met Kirk on March 11 after he had transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
He said Kirk was in bed, having just completed physical therapy, with so little hair that some of his surgical scars were visible. Kirk used his right hand to give him a firm handshake and it was evident that the stroke had affected his left side, Shimkus said.
Shimkus said Kirk has “his full cognitive ability, but he’s going to be a much slower-paced Mark Kirk. Not the guy running down the hallways, not like ‘Chatty Kathy’ anymore. He’s going to be listening, and very deliberative.”
Still, the lawmaker asserted, “I think you’ll see Mark as involved, if not more involved, than any sitting U.S. senator.”
The visit was the last time Shimkus saw Kirk. He later relied on the accounts of others, including fellow Illinois House Republicans Judy Biggert and Aaron Schock, after they met with a convalescing Kirk.
Another House Republican from Illinois, Peter Roskam, issued a statement Wednesday calling Kirk a “hero” and adding, “Watching him take those Senate stairs will start 2013 off right.”
Kirk is returning to a Senate with fewer Republicans – his party will control 45 seats, down from 47. He just missed the highly charged vote on the so-called fiscal cliff, but will soon have to weigh in on the contentious issues including whether to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
Before falling ill, Kirk served on four committees – Appropriations, Banking, Health and Aging. Trover, his spokesman, declined to say which panels he wanted to sit on during the 113th Congress.
Kirk returns to key staff changes, as his former chief of staff, Lester Munson, recently left for another post on Capitol Hill, and his No. 2 aide, Kate Dickens, has assumed the top job.
Political scientist Ross Baker, an expert on Congress who teaches at Rutgers, said in an interview Wednesday that the Senate is a “sentimental place” whose members are sensitive to sick or disabled colleagues. One, coincidentally, is Biden, a former senator who had surgeries for life-threatening brain aneurysms in 1988 and was absent from Congress for months.
Baker noted that even senators who return to the chamber after an unsuccessful presidential run “have a hard time getting back in the stream.”
“Things have passed them by,” he said. “A good Senate staff, to some degree, can compensate for the absence of the principal himself or herself, but it’s not entirely perfect. There’s a kind of pulsing rhythm of the way the chamber operates, and it takes a little while to get back into that beat.”
Chicago area doctors who have watched Kirk’s progress with keen interest said his mental and physical endurance might be persistent issues, as they are for other stroke patients.
A key political advantage for Kirk is that he is not up for re-election until 2016. Campaign funds for him trickled in as he recuperated, according to Federal Election Commission reports that showed he had just over $393,000 in his war chest last Sept. 30.
The commission at some future date must render a decision on whether Kirk and his then-girlfriend, Dodie McCracken, broke campaign-finance law during his 2010 Senate bid. A one-time, live-in girlfriend, McCracken received more than $143,000 in fees and expenses for campaign work, but her name does not appear on federal reports because she was paid through a company working for the campaign.
The complaint, brought to the FEC’s attention by the lawmaker’s ex-wife, has been labeled “groundless” by a Kirk aide. It was first revealed by the Tribune in May.
Kirk served for almost 10 years in the House before winning his Senate seat. Shimkus said he “fully expects” Kirk to run for re-election, though Trover declined an opinion, saying he would leave it to the senator to make that known.