WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk first feared for his life, then his career, after he suffered a life-threatening stroke nearly a year ago. Returning to work has been one of the great honors of his life, the Illinois Republican said Wednesday, and one he's not prepared to squander by bickering over partisan issues.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Kirk described his return to the Senate as grueling but fulfilling.
"Part of my message is, if you go through the terrible diagnosis of a stroke, it's not the end," Kirk told the AP. "You will come back."
Kirk's come back — which began in January, when he climbed 45 steps outside the Capitol to the Senate floor — has seen him land in the middle of one of the Capitol's most contentious debates, over new gun control legislation. Kirk has placed himself right in the center of it, partnering with two New York Democrats, Sens. Kirsten Gillbrand and Sen. Chuck Schumer_- on pieces of gun control legislation.
Kirk said passing legislation that addresses guns is one of his top priorities.
"My goal is to eventually get something done that actually saves a life, something that actually passes Congress that really does prevent what happened to the Pendleton family," Kirk said.
Kirk referred to the family of 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, who police say was shot and killed as she talked with friends in a park not far from President Barack Obama's Chicago home. The family, which sat as guests of first lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday's state of the union, met with Kirk on Wednesday.
Kirk said he was moved by his meeting with the family and by President Obama's invocation of her life during his speech.
"It was a stirring moment," he said.
Kirk received a warm greeting from President Obama on the floor of the House, bumping fists with Obama before the president spoke. Kirk said he took the time to introduce the President to members of the military he knew who were seated by him.
"He was quite nice," Kirk joked. "We've actually known each other for a while. He ran for Congress the same year I did — I was the luckier."
Kirk was elected to the U.S. House in 2000. Obama lost a primary that year to Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush.
While Kirk is supportive of new gun control legislation, he said he doesn't see Obama's call for new legislation addressing climate change going anywhere at the moment. Kirk, who has been supportive of such efforts in the past, and is considered one of the Senate's leading moderates, said he believed that there were not even enough Democrats to support a big push on the issue.
"I think a number of people on the Democratic side would say the bill is just around the corner, because they know that's what the audience would like to hear," he said. "But there's almost no chance of that bill in this Congress."
Since returning in January, Kirk said he has filled his time looking for ways to work together with members of both parties.
Kirk has formed a close bond with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., referring to them as "a dynamic duo." Their friendship started before Kirk's stroke, Kirk said, and has continued upon his return. Manchin, along with Vice President Joe Biden, stood side-by-side with Kirk as he ascended the Capitol steps.
Kirk said he and Manchin had a lot of quality time on a boat that Manchin partially owns called "the Black Tie" along with other senators, including Schumer, who Kirk said "knows the lyrics to almost every major hit of the 1970s. It's a bit uncanny."
With "the crew of 'the Black Tie'" he said, referring to his fellow senators, "you get that social bond when senators would actually have a drink together even commute together.
"Only when you have that can you get over all the difficulties and the centrifugal nature of Washington and the partisan process," Kirk said.