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Kirk is reported to be recovering, but timetable for Senate return is unclear

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 16, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Israel’s prime minister sent him a shout out in the midst of a big policy conference last week. The Senate Republican leader called Wednesday to talk about Iran sanctions. And a friend, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, found the senator “sharp” and determined when he visited on Sunday night.

But U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. – after suffering a stroke in Chicago on Jan. 21 -- has remained confined to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Center of Stroke Rehabilitation since mid-February.

On Sunday evening, Kirk “said that nothing he has done has been as difficult as this road to recovery,” Shimkus, R-Collinsville, wrote in the Capitol Hill daily“The Hill.”

“Every day, Mark pushes himself through tough physical therapy sessions, on a treadmill and walking the hallways. Some days are better than others, but his progress is consistent, and he knows we are cheering him on.”

Last Friday, Kirk’s doctor at the rehab center, Dr. Richard Harvey, said he was pleased with the senator’s progress so far. He said Kirk, 52, continues to improve his “mobility for day-to-day activities.” And he said Kirk has been meeting regularly with his staff and has been getting visits from close friends and family.

Doctors have predicted that Kirk will make a full mental recovery after a stroke and surgery to remove temporarily part of his skull to reduce swelling. That segment was later reattached, and Shimkus said the senator’s “short hair reminded me of Sgt. Carter from the TV show Gomer Pyle, USMC.”

However, Kirk – a U.S. Naval Reserve commander described by friends and staffers as being quite fit before his stroke – is likely to lose some mobility on his left side, which was affected by the stroke, doctors said last month. Kirk began his rehabilitation in mid-February with a regimen that included regular walks on a treadmill.

There was no official statement on Kirk’s condition this Friday, but the senator’s staff – which has given little information about his recovery – predicted another medical update next week. His office says it is “fully operational,” although the senator is unable to travel to Washington to vote and attend hearings. A staffer for another senator said the word on Capitol Hill was that Kirk might not be able to return until late spring or so.

But Kirk, who requested his Blackberry within days after suffering the stroke, is reportedly weighing in on some issues now. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement Friday that he talked with Kirk about Iran sanctions and other issues by phone on Wednesday evening.

“I assured [Kirk] that our staffs were working closely to maintain the interests of Illinois in the U.S. Senate,” McConnell said. “True to form, Mark was eager to discuss policy and specifically expressed his appreciation for our support in backing his latest initiatives to tighten Iran sanctions. I told him that his colleagues are behind him as he confronts the rigorous physical therapy that he described and we are eager to have him back.”

Kirk has been among the strongest voices in Congress in favor of strict sanctions against Iran until that nation stops developing a nuclear weapon, which Israel views as a threat. The Illinois senator co-authored with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a tough set of economic sanctionsthat the Senate approved last fall.

In fact, Kirk is viewed as such a staunch defender of Israel that the nation’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a point – in the middle of his speech to a U.S.-Israel policy conference in Washington last week – to wish Kirk a speedy recovery.

“I want to send a special message to a great friend of Israel who’s not here tonight, Sen. Mark Kirk, the coauthor of the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions act,” Netanyahu said to thunderous applause. “Sen. Kirk, I know you are watching this tonight. Please get well soon. America needs you, Israel needs you. I send you best wishes for a speedy recovery.”

Fellow lawmakers say that Kirk also has focused on Illinois issues, taking special interest in trying to get federal disaster aid to help families and businesses hit by tornadoes and severe weather in storms between Feb. 29 and March 2.

“We first spoke about the devastating tornado in the Harrisburg area and our extreme disappointment in FEMA's rejection of Illinois' request for disaster assistance, which we intend to fight along with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Gov. Pat Quinn, D-Ill., and our Illinois colleagues,” wrote Shimkus.

“He thanked me for my prompt visit and for having a member of his staff tour with me. I told him that many southern Illinoisans appreciated the visit he made downstate prior to his stroke.”

This week, Kirk joined with Durbin, Shimkus and other lawmakers in urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reconsider its initial refusal to grant “major disaster” aid to the five affected counties in Southern Illinois.

Kirk also issued a statement on ethics legislation, warning that the corruption conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich – who started his prison term Thursday – should be “a clear warning to all elected officials that public corruption of any form will not be tolerated.”

When Shimkus walked in the room at the rehab facility on Sunday, Kirk “was sitting up with a smile on his face.” The senator’s room was crowded with Get Well messages from Illinois, Washington and around the world.

“Mentally he is sharp. I believe he could cast knowledgeable votes today,” Shimkus said. “But he is in a critical time to continue to focus on improvement and strengthening his body and soul for the important work he looks forward to resuming.”

Kirk mentioned that he talked daily with the chaplain at the rehab center and spent time in prayer. But Shimkus recalled that the senator maintained a strong interest in politics.

“As I walked out of his room, I overheard him ask his staffer what time the movie was on,” Shimkus wrote. “That is when I knew he was about to stay up to watch ‘Game Change’” – the HBO movie about the John McCain-Sarah Palin GOP ticket.

Shimkus concluded: “Sen. Mark Kirk is coming back.”