Updated: February 5, 2013 6:33AM
WASHINGTON — With much tenderness, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin helped Sen. Mark Kirk take off his coat, no easy task for a recovering stroke victim, much less one coming back to work Thursday for the first time in almost a year.
Kirk walked into the Capitol after climbing the Senate steps as Biden and Manchin (D-W.Va.) gripped his arms — into the next phase of his Senate career.
I watched a few feet away as Biden, 70, in a fatherly manner, fussed to make sure that Kirk, 53, was comfortable.
After all, Biden has been there himself. He had a brush with death in 1988, when he was felled by a brain aneurysm.
Thursday was a day of celebrating Kirk’s comeback as the 113th Congress convened.
After covering the bitter, partisan, almost round-the-clock fiscal cliff battles of the past week, I saw everybody put acrimony aside and hit the pause button on Thursday with swearing-in festivities filling the Capitol. The return of Kirk, a Republican from Highland Park, added to the upbeat mood on the Senate side.
Senate Chaplain Barry Black talked about Kirk’s homecoming in his opening prayer. “We praise you that today your conquering spirit has brought our beloved Senator Mark Kirk back to work in these hallowed halls,” he said.
The bipartisan show of support for Kirk, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), said the bipartisan show of support for Kirk was “evidence that a lot of us, regardless of party affiliation, can come together to show the human side of politics.”
Kirk’s re-emergence — the public Senate stair-climbing especially — marked a personal triumph of grit and determination to relearn how to speak and walk after he suffered a stroke on Jan. 21, the day froze his Senate career, which had been a work-in-progress. Kirk joined the Senate in November, 2010 after serving five terms in the House of Representatives.
Kirk resumes a Senate course that will depend, I suspect, on how fast he continues to gain strength and endurance. For all the inspirational photos and video of Kirk climbing the Senate steps to walk in the chamber with the Capitol dome in the background, he left in a wheelchair.
Most of the photos and video of Kirk taken on Wednesday, when he did a round of one-on-one interviews with Chicago outlets in the Capitol, showed him sitting in a chair looking very senatorial. When by chance I ran into him after he wrapped up with the other reporters — he was in a wheelchair, getting around with the assistance of his devoted, protective staffers and looking dog-tired. He struggled with the few words we exchanged as he was gracious enough to make the effort to greet me.
In the new Congress, Kirk is retaining his committee assignments: Appropriations, Banking, Housing and Urban Development, Aging and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Now that he’s back, there are three issues where Kirk can make a difference: Two may be coming up soon and another is more long-term.
The horrible massacre at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Conn., has revived the congressional gun-control debate. Biden is leading the Obama administration task force to figure out ways to curb gun violence. Kirk, in his House career, was a leading Republican on gun-control issues. Will Kirk take the GOP Senate lead?
Will Kirk join in efforts to scuttle the potential nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as Defense secretary? Kirk has long focused on defending Israel and toughening sanctions on Iran. Hagel is at odds with Kirk’s positions on both fronts.
For the lousy luck of getting hit with a stroke, a good place to be living if it happens is in the Chicago area. Kirk was an in-patient at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, landing there in February, a month after the opening of the institute’s new experimental Patient Recovery Unit and Ability Lab. Kirk was the first patient to serve as a lab rat for the institute’s post-stroke walking research — all federally funded.
After three months, Kirk returned home to Highland Park, where he continued outpatient treatment either at the hospital downtown or at its suburban Wheeling facility.
Kirk’s office organized a news conference with his Rehab Institute medical team at the Capitol on Thursday to highlight the institute’s great accomplishments. Kirk’s doctors and physical therapist said that over the past 11 months Kirk has received hundreds of sessions of occupational, physical and speech therapy.
That’s vastly more treatments than any insurance provides, whether private or Medicaid, the federal-state program for the needy. While the Rehab Institute is a Chicago treasure, the answer, however charitable, seems not just a fund-raising drive to help one institution. Expanding Medicaid treatments for stroke victims could be a goal — but Congress, post-fiscal cliff, in a few weeks will be grappling again with cutting federal spending. Kirk has a newfound interest on helping people get coverage for more treatments. How he leads on this will matter.