January 25, 2012

Kirk's best friend in Senate will pay him a visit | Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Kirk's best friend in the Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, plans to fly to Chicago on Friday night, and whether he's allowed to visit his hospitalized friend, he will be there for support.

During the State of the Union speech Tuesday, Manchin, a Democrat, kept open an empty seat next to him in honor of his absent friend, a Republican.

"I'm sitting by Mark Kirk tonight," he announced.

On Wednesday, Manchin spoke at length about the 52-year-old Kirk, calling him an "Energizer Bunny" — a man so willful, determined and hard-charging that he'll probably shave in half whatever time doctors say is needed for rehabilitation after his weekend stroke.

Both are freshman senators. Both got an early start ahead of other first-term senators, since they were sworn in late in 2010, not early 2011.

"He and I just clicked from day one," said Manchin, a former two-term governor of West Virginia. He was impressed with Kirk's temperament, knowledge and desire for bipartisanship.

"You don't find that many Mark Kirks," Manchin said from the Hart Senate Office Building, where Kirk has his offices.

"I've been here for a year," Manchin said. "I haven't found anybody that's going to replace Mark Kirk's attitude, his true, gung-ho Americanism, wanting to continue to be the best country in the world, as we've been in the past, and willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen."

The two senators — Kirk an urbane Republican, Manchin a Democrat with an Appalachian zest — might be an unlikely pair. But they share concerns, including reducing the deficit, overhauling the tax code and putting an end to "pill mills" that lead to prescription drug abuse. A top concern: breaking the gridlock by reaching across the aisle.

Manchin said his wife, Gayle, and Kirk's significant other, Dodie McCracken, also are close. They do things as a foursome — and often try to get Democrats and Republicans together on free nights, if only for beer and pizza.

Their staffs are close too, Manchin said.

Their highest-profile efforts to bring the sides together are Thursday lunches, when they invite Democrats and Republicans to break bread together. They've had as many as eight or 10 members join them. More often, it's just the two of them.

On Monday, Manchin was driving through West Virginia's mountains to return to the capital after the winter break when his chief of staff phoned to say Kirk might have had a stroke.

"Couldn't believe it," Manchin said. "Couldn't believe it."

He never knew Kirk to be sick or even "have a down day."

Manchin said he phoned McCracken and spoke to her after Kirk underwent brain surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

"She says: 'We are at the right place for him to get the best treatment by the best doctor, who is not only one of the best neurosurgeons, but also a very dear friend.'"

The news from her of late? That every day is getting better, Manchin said.

Kirk was "progressing as expected" after his stroke but remained in serious condition, his neurosurgeon said Wednesday.

"We continue to be hopeful about his long-term prognosis," said Dr. Richard Fessler, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial.

Fessler performed the emergency surgery on the senator Sunday. Surgeons removed a piece of Kirk's skull to alleviate pressure from swelling. The stroke affected his left side, particularly movement of his left arm and his face. Doctors say he is expected to make a full mental recovery but might not regain full movement, even after rehabilitation.

Manchin was thrilled to hear that Kirk, from a hospital bed, had asked for his BlackBerry.

"That was very good news," Manchin said, "and I think Dodie got very excited about that too. She says: 'Can you believe it?' And I say: 'Doesn't surprise me.'"

Manchin dropped a letter to Kirk in the mail Tuesday.

"So I told him in this letter, I said: 'Buddy, I can't give you much time off. So get well soon, get back here, 'cause we need you.'"

He is optimistic about Kirk's rehabilitation.

"I have great expectations," he said.

When Manchin goes to see Kirk, he's going not as a senator or as a colleague, but as a friend, he said. But he might be tempted to talk shop.

"I might take an extra bill or two with me, just for the hell of it, and throw it at him and say, 'What do you think about this?'"

Tribune reporter Cynthia Dizikes contributed.

By:  Katherine Skiba
Source: Manchin optimistic fellow junior lawmaker will fare well in rehabilitation after stroke