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Kirk breaks ‘stroke silence’ for gay rights bill

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Updated: December 6, 2013 6:28AM

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., broke what he called his “stroke silence” on Monday, speaking on the Senate floor for the first time since his stroke on Jan. 21, 2012, deliberately picking, he told me, a gay rights bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“For me it was the right time and the right place to add my voice,” Kirk told me later about the ENDA measure.

It passed a procedural hurdle on a 61-30 vote and is poised to be passed by the Senate in the coming days. Kirk was one of seven GOP yes votes in the Senate on Monday. Republican opposition is considerable and the legislation faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled House. It may never even get a vote.

Kirk spoke for about a minute — his speech was just about 100 words. Usually senators stand when they talk. Kirk asked the presiding officer for permission to speak seated, and of course he got it.

“I would say that I have been silent for the last two years due to a stroke,” he said.

Speaking slowly, he said he wanted to speak “because I believe so passionately in enacting the ENDA statute, which is, you know this is not a major change to law. I would say it’s already the law in 21 states.”

“I think it’s particularly appropriate for an Illinois Republican to speak on behalf of this measure,” he said. And with that he cited legislative victories by two famous Illinois Republicans, the late Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, who backed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Abraham Lincoln’s work for the adoption of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery.

After Kirk spoke, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, came up to him and clasped his hands, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, walked over to give Kirk congratulations.

Kirk is vastly improved since he returned to the Senate last January after an absence of almost a year while he was recovering.

Still, until Monday, Kirk has curtailed certain activities that are part of Senate life in the Capitol — such as giving floor speeches and showing up at press conferences.

Kirk told me he spoke while seated “because it takes a couple of percentage points of my brain power to always stand with the bum leg that I got,” he said. Speaking while sitting down, Kirk said, freed him up to have “complete focus on the issue.”

ENDA’s been a tough sell for years. Kirk and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are champions of the measure, but there are pockets of strong GOP opposition all over Congress.

Kirk, elected in 2010, reminded me that he backed ENDA “almost from the first week that I was a candidate. . . . I feel that now that I am in the Senate, that one of my missions is to live up Everett Dirksen’s legacy.”

Later, during an ENDA press conference — which Kirk did not attend — Collins said she wanted “to pay special tribute” to Kirk. ENDA sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, praised Kirk for being “deeply engaged” in ENDA’s passage.

I was in the Senate gallery when Kirk spoke and saw him look up when he was done to smile at a beaming woman waving at him and giving him a thumbs up. Who was that, I asked.

“My girlfriend,” said Kirk, who has been divorced for several years. She’s Katie Walsh, the finance director — the top fundraiser — for the Republican National Committee.


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