After nearly a year of rehabilitation following a devastating stroke, Sen. Mark S. Kirk took his first steps into the Capitol on Thursday, and his first steps into a second act as senator that he never imagined would be necessary at the age of 53.
Fulfilling a promise he made last year, the Illinois Republican walked the 45 steps outside the Capitol to the Senate chamber as senators lined the steps to cheer him on.
Despite this uncharted territory for Kirk, much about his climb up the Senate steps and entry into the second-floor, senators-only door was familiar: Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was on one arm and friend and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., was on the other. And as Kirk finally broke that barrier into the Capitol, behind him as a spotter was Illinois’ senior senator, Democrat Richard J. Durbin. It was a fitting role for the Senate majority whip to play, as he and his staff have provided support for Kirk’s office since the Republican suffered his stroke on Jan. 23.
Durbin gently helped Kirk remove his overcoat as the Republican senator delicately maintained his balance in front of a sea of reporters and staffers.
For Kirk, the next few months, maybe even years, may be a difficult balancing act. But as the 112th Congress transitioned to the 113th, his climb up those Capitol steps was one of the few bright spots for lawmakers divided by partisanship and gridlock. Republicans and Democrats alike applauded his return, just moments before being sworn in by Biden to do their official duties.
“It was an act of courage,” said Senate President Pro Tem Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., of Kirk’s much-anticipated climb.
“We’re very proud of him,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who also noted Kirk’s courage. “He looks terrific, speaks so well.”
Reid also noted how significant it was for the American people to understand Kirk’s perseverance in the face of his stroke-induced handicaps. The trauma to Kirk’s brain permanently impeded the left side of his body, yet the senator, with his doctor’s help, learned to walk again.
In an interview published Wednesday in suburban Chicago’s Daily Herald, Kirk said he now considers himself a “disabled American” and that he understands his role in leading by example to become an ambassador for those like him. Kirk also described what he said was either a near-death experience or a dream in which angels beckoned him to join them and he refused.
Many members of Illinois’ House delegation, of which Kirk was a member for 10 years, crossed the Capitol to watch their former colleague make his return. At the top of the stairs, Kirk was met by dozens of hugs.
But more than the love for his return, Kirk, like any sitting senator, was also met by the challenges of the 113th Congress, and the looming legislative fights ahead. And though those may be difficult, they are challenges he is probably happy to face.