By Bill Lambrecht
Last year, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., used a harness learning to walk again after a stroke that threatened not just his career but his life.
Back after a year's absence from the Senate, Kirk is showing up for every vote, making national news by supporting same-sex marriage and forging bipartisan coalitions on guns and other big issues of the day -- sometimes while meeting on a yacht.
These days, his equipment is more basic than the elaborate devices during his grueling therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
"I have my bad-ass cane, wrapped in camouflage and hockey tape," he said, pointing to a cane with its four-pronged base leaning against his desk.
In his return in January, Kirk made an exhausting and symbolic 45-step climb to the U.S. Senate chamber amid cheers from colleagues. Elsewhere in the Capitol, one of his doctors noted that the pace of Kirk's ongoing recovery would be uncertain because stroke victims react differently to stress.
Kirk, 53, is by all accounts surviving the intensity of Washington, and he continues to recover. He speaks more softly and exhibits a frailty that would be expected of someone who survived only after doctors removed a portion of his skull to relieve swelling in his brain.
The ischemic stroke in January 2012 occurred on the right side of the brain. It didn't impair cognitive functioning but left prospects dim for recovery on the left side of Kirk's body.
Kirk continues therapy in Washington every other morning and says he is feeling stronger as time passes.
"I didn't know there were some pretty significant odds against me," he said in an interview. "Nobody told me that three-fourths of stroke patients don't return to work. That would have been discouraging."
Over the recent congressional break, Kirk returned to the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute and visited therapist Michael Klonowski, who oversaw dozens of Kirk's sessions on a special treadmill while being supported by a harness and overhead wires.
Likening the therapy to boot camp, Klonowski recalled Kirk struggling to keep pace as he ratcheted up the treadmill's resistance. Klonowski saw the rewards of all that work during the visit -- Kirk greeting people and "fitting well into his role as a senator."
"He's walking better and moving along and it was good to see that," Klonowski said.
Last week, Kirk teamed with fellow Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, to host their first weekly meeting with Illinoisans visiting Washington since 2011.
Durbin recalled in an interview how Kirk endured a Senate "vote-o-rama" in March, an all-night marathon of amendments and political posturing that didn't conclude until 5 a.m.
"I think he's made a remarkable comeback. This was a life-threatening stroke and he is lucky to be alive," Durbin said. "Sure, it's taken its toll; you can see it physically. But I am just so proud of him and what he's achieved."
OUTSPOKEN ON GAY MARRIAGE
Kirk was felled before many in Illinois got to know him. He was elected to the Senate in 2010 after representing a suburban Chicago district in Congress. In five terms, he carved out an unusual record as a fiscal conservative, a foreign policy hawk and a moderate on social issues.
His views on personal freedom drew national attention this month when he delivered a brief but eloquent endorsement of same-sex marriage. Only one other GOP senator has endorsed marriage equality under the law.
"Our time on this earth is limited; I know that better than most," he said, referring to his struggles. "Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back. Government has no place in the middle."
In the interview, Kirk spoke of knowing same-sex partners. "Gay couples are no longer in the 1950s closet. They're very much a part of our lives, and the thought of discriminating against them is an anathema," he said.
Kirk is a proponent of stricter controls on gun ownership, another cultural issue in which he is separating himself from others in his party.
But he has not been so aggressive on the topic of immigration overhaul: His office said Kirk needed time to review the bipartisan proposal offered this week before commenting.
Yet Kirk is sponsoring legislation with Democrats to curb illegal gun trafficking, in effect providing cover for Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and other Republicans who were considering moderating their stances on guns.
Kirk was working with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia on gun legislation before Manchin and Toomey announced their bipartisan agreement to expand background checks for gun buyers.
The legislation was stalled on Wednesday in a decisive blow to gun safety advocates. Kirk was one of just four Republicans supporting it, hours after he met with relatives of the Newtown, Conn., shooting victims.
Afterward, he suggested that the issue was not dead: "American voters are the ultimate judge of today's result," he said.
Over the years, Kirk has made it a point to develop the sort of relationships with Democrats that have grown out of fashion in the polarized Congress. He has become especially close to Manchin; it was Manchin who took Kirk's arm during that January climb back to the Senate.
Kirk and Manchin also are working together behind the scenes to fashion legislation that increases economic pressure on Iran beyond the sanctions already in place.
The prospect of a Chicago Republican becoming friends with a deer-hunting Democrat from a town of 375 seems remote. But Kirk and Manchin dine together often. And Kirk recalled to reporters last week visits by him and other senators to Manchin's 54-foot Sea Ray Sundancer, Black Tie, docked on the Potomac River.
Kirk remarked that the vessel "has been much of the reason for much of the bipartisan cooperation around here ... Sometimes alcoholic beverages might be served and ties might get loosened."
Back home in Illinois, Kirk intends to remain active in GOP politics, he said. He described himself as "titular head of the Illinois Republican Party."
In recent weeks, he exerted his influence to help state Republican Chairman Pat Brady survive an effort to remove him largely because of Brady's support of same-sex marriage.
Despite his health problems, Kirk is unequivocal about remaining in the Senate. Another senator, South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, announced recently that he won't seek re-election in 2014. Johnson, 66, suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage in 2006 and still has difficulty speaking.
Kirk shook his head when asked in the interview if, like Johnson, he might choose not to run again while dealing with health issues.
"Already raising money for re-election," he said.