In a dramatic return to Capitol Hill less than a year after suffering a stroke, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) climbed the stairs of the Senate Thursday as most of his colleagues watched and cheered.
Shortly after 11:30 a.m., Kirk emerged from an SUV parked by the Senate carriage entrance of the Capitol and walked over to the main staircase, where he was greeted by Vice President Biden, his fellow Illinois senator, Dick Durbin (D) and close friend, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.).
“Welcome back, man!” Biden said as a crowd of hundreds cheered.
Kirk, using a cane and gripping the arm of Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer, beamed as he approached his colleagues.
“You know, during the debate I was rooting for you,” Kirk told Biden, who laughed heartily.
As he rounded the corner of the center of the Senate steps, Kirk waved and the crowd cheered again. He stood at the bottom of the Senate steps before making a slow climb with the assistance of Biden and Manchin. Kirk’s left leg shook as he raised it with each step; he stopped at least three times, with Biden quipping at one point that he wouldn’t permit the senator to take so many breaks.
Biden, as president of the Senate, played a formal and symbolic role, since the vice president also suffered a stroke in 1989. After seven months of hospitalization, Biden was escorted up the steps in a similar fashion by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).
Kirk, 53, served for 10 years in the House before taking over the seat once held by President Obama in 2011. His return marks a remarkable year of recovery following a stroke on Jan. 21, 2012.
That day, Kirk drove himself to a hospital and checked himself in. Over the course of his recovery, which included learning how to walk again, Kirk’s office occasionally released photographs and videos that eventually confirmed that the senator had made a nearly-complete recovery. In the closing days of the 2012 election cycle, Kirk also made robo-calls on behalf of Illinois Republican congressional candidates. Aides announced last month that he planned to use the start of the 113th Congress to return to work.
Kirk flew back to Washington a few days ago and has mostly declined interview requests from outlets not based in Illinois. But he told Chicago-area reporters Wednesday that he spent time rehearsing his Capitol stair climb before Thursday’s public entrance.
In an in-depth interview with his hometown suburban Chicago newspaper, Kirk described the early days following his stroke, saying that they have made him a more religious person. He recalled seeing three angels at the foot of his bed before awakening in a hospital after suffering his stroke.
“You want to come with us?” Kirk said he was asked.
“No,” he said he told the angels. “I’ll hold off.”
Kirk climbed the Senate steps for about five minutes, and hugged Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) when he reached the top at 11:45 a.m. Kirk then stood at the Senate door greeting his colleagues and members of the House of Representatives, including Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both her legs during the Iraq war and used her prosthetic limbs to climb the steps as well Thursday.
“It’s exciting, it reminds you of how life is fragile,” said Rep. Aaron Shock (R-Ill.). “He’s obviously made a remarkable comeback to be able to walk these steps when just a year ago he was in a much different state.”
Reporters were waiting for Kirk when he entered the hallway leading to the Senate chamber. Manchin helped Kirk take off his overcoat.
“Good to see you guys,” Kirk said.
“I think I’m more glad to have him back,” Manchin said.
The Senate convened shortly after noon as the chaplain led the chamber in prayer. As other senators stood and bowed their heads in prayer, Kirk stayed seated, resting his head on his desk.
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost