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Associated Press
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., acknowledges well-wishers Thursday at the Capitol, flanked by Vice President Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Warm welcome greets senator year after stroke

– In a dramatic return to Washington less than a year after suffering a stroke, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., climbed the stairs of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday with the assistance of colleagues to take his seat again in the Senate chamber.

Kirk, 53, suffered an ischemic stroke Jan. 21 and has spent the past year recovering in suburban Chicago. Aides had announced last month that Kirk would return to the Senate at the start of the 113th Congress, which was Thursday.

Keeping his promise, Kirk arrived at the Senate side of the Capitol at 11:30 a.m. and used a cane as he approached the staircase, where he was greeted by Vice President Biden, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Kirk’s close friend, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“Welcome back, man!” Biden said to Kirk as a crowd of hundreds cheered.

“You know, during the debate I was rooting for you,” Kirk told Biden, who laughed heartily.

Biden, a former senator, also suffered a stroke in 1989 and was escorted upon his return up the Senate steps in a similar fashion by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.

Before the climb, Kirk stood at the bottom of the Senate steps for waiting photographers and reporters, many of whom traveled from Chicago to witness his return. Kirk then turned to the steps, where he found virtually every member of the U.S. Senate – Democrats and Republicans – and dozens of House lawmakers.

Kirk’s left leg shook occasionally as he raised it with each step; he stopped at least three times, with Biden quipping at one point that he wouldn’t permit the senator to take so many breaks.

Kirk served for 10 years in the House before winning the seat once held by President Obama in 2011. His return marks what lawmakers, aides and other observers agree is a remarkable year of recovery for a stroke patient.

Feeling ill, Kirk drove to a hospital last January and checked himself in, and his recovery has included learning how to walk again, a process documented by aides in a series of photographs and YouTube videos that confirmed his recovery for constituents. In the closing days of the 2012 campaign, Kirk also made calls for Illinois Republican congressional candidates.

Kirk flew to Washington a few days ago and has mostly declined interview requests from outlets not based in Illinois. In an interview with a suburban Chicago newspaper, Kirk described the early days after his stroke, saying that he recalled seeing three angels at the foot of his bed before awakening in a hospital.

“You want to come with us?” Kirk said he was asked. “No,” he said he told the angels. “I’ll hold off.”

Kirk’s climb took about five minutes, and he hugged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.; and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both her legs during the Iraq war and climbed the steps Thursday using prosthetic limbs.