WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after suffering a debilitating stroke, Sen. Mark Kirk walked the 45 steps up the Capitol on Thursday and reclaimed his seat in the U.S. Senate on the first day of the 113th Congress.
The Illinois Republican was greeted at the foot of the Capitol steps by an open-armed Vice President Joe Biden. With Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., at his side, and clutching a four-prong cane, Kirk climbed the steps to the Capitol's entrance to rousing applause from Senate colleagues, the Illinois congressional delegation and Capitol staff.
Kirk, 53, waved and smiled, pausing several times to greet well-wishers. "Feels great," he said, walking through the door.
Moments earlier, Kirk's return brought most of the Senate, many members of the House where Kirk once served and dozens of congressional aides to the steps of the Capitol. On a frigid, but clear and sunny day, they cheered as Kirk emerged from a sedan to find Biden awaiting him.
"Welcome back man!" Biden said.
Kirk smiled broadly, hugging the vice president.
"During the debate I was rooting for you," Kirk joked.
With Biden, Manchin — Kirk's closest friend in the Senate — and his Illinois colleague, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin nearby, Kirk mixed grimaces of concentration with smiles as he walked up the steps. "Go, Mark go," ''yeah Mark!" and "you're almost there!" fellow members of Congress cheered. Biden kept a steadying hand on Kirk as he climbed and Manchin lent a supporting arm around his waist. Kirk's ascent, with several pauses, took about 20 minutes.
As they neared the Senate, Biden told Kirk he could take all the time he wanted.
"I made the same walk," Biden said. He was referring to his own recuperation from brain aneurysms in 1988 and return to the Senate.
Walking past reporters, Kirk settled into a desk near the back of the chamber. One by one, fellow senators came to wish him well and Kirk chatted with the senator seated next to him, Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota. In a prayer that began Thursday's Senate session — the first of the new Congress — Senate Chaplain Barry Black expressed gratitude for Kirk's return.
Kirk's return followed a year of an intensive, experimental rehabilitation regimen that is often compared to military boot camp because of its intensity. Throughout the process, he updated constituents with video messages about his rehab and his official work. From Chicago, he held video conferences with his staff and worked to keep up to date on Senate business with an eye toward a return this year.
"I think I am more glad that he's back than he is," Manchin joked.
Durbin said he was thrilled to have Kirk back. "Fantastic," he said.
Kirk was all smiles, too.
"Good to see you," he said to a group of reporters waiting for him at the top of the Capitol steps.
Kirk keeps his seats on the Senate appropriations, banking and health-education-labor committees as well as the Special Committee on Aging. His term expires at the end of 2016.
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