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Mark Kirk makes dramatic return to Capitol Hill

Returning to the Capitol for the first time since he suffered a debilitating stroke 348 days ago, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) climbed the stairs of the U.S. Capitol Thursday with the assistance of colleagues to take his seat in the Senate chamber.

Kirk, 53, suffered an ischemic stroke Jan. 21 and has spent the past year recovering in suburban Chicago. Aides announced last month that Kirk would return to the Senate at the start of the 113th Congress. He arrived at 11:30 a.m. and used a cane to approach the stairs, where he was greeted by Vice President Biden, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Kirk’s close friend, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

“Welcome back, man!” Biden said to Kirk as a crowd of hundreds cheered.

Kirk hugged Biden and grabbed the back of the vice president’s head.

“You know, during the debate I was rooting for you,” Kirk told Biden, who laughed heartily.

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Biden, a former senator, also suffered a stroke in 1989 and was escorted upon his return up the Senate steps in a similar fashion by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

Before the climb, Kirk stood at the bottom of the Senate steps for waiting photographers and reporters, many of whom traveled from Chicago to witness his return. Kirk then turned to the steps, where he found virtually every member of the U.S. Senate — Democrats and Republicans — and dozens of House lawmakers.

Kirk’s left leg shook occasionally as he raised it with each step; he stopped at least three times during his five-minute climb, with Biden quipping at one point that he wouldn’t permit the senator to take so many breaks.

Kirk served for 10 years in the House before winning, in 2011, the seat once held by President Obama. His return marks what lawmakers, aides and other observers agree is a remarkable year of recovery for a stroke patient.

Feeling ill, Kirk drove to a hospital last January and checked himself in. His recovery has included learning how to walk again, a process documented by aides in a series of photographs and YouTube videos. In the closing days of the 2012 campaign, Kirk also recorded robo-calls for Republican congressional candidates in Illinois.

Kirk flew to Washington a few days ago and has mostly declined interview requests from outlets not based in Illinois. In an interview with a suburban Chicago newspaper, Kirk described the early days after his stroke, saying that 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.”

On Thursday, he had hugs for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both her legs during the Iraq war and also climbed the steps Thursday on prosthetic limbs.

“It’s exciting. It reminds you of how life is fragile,” Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said of Kirk’s return. “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 Capitol.

“Good to see you guys,” he said.

When the Senate convened moments later, the chaplain led the chamber in prayer. As other senators stood and bowed their heads, Kirk stayed seated, resting his head on his desk.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.


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