Senate to give Mark Kirk time to heal
U.S. Senate likely to allow indefinite recovery period, as it has for ill members in the past
By Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune reporter
January 25, 2012
WASHINGTON—Ted Kennedy had a brain tumor. Joe Biden had two brain aneurysms. Tim Johnson had a rare brain anomaly that led to strokelike symptoms. Lyndon Baines Johnson had a heart attack.
The lawmakers, all stricken while in public office, were afforded a privilege that comes with Senate service: They weren't at risk of losing their jobs because they weren't able to travel to work.
There is no protocol, constitutional authority, federal law or congressional rule for the Senate to recognize "incapacity" of a sitting member and declare a "vacancy" in the office, according to a 2006 study by the Congressional Research Service.
History shows that Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who suffered a stroke over the weekend, will be given ample time by his colleagues to recuperate. Kirk, 52, is in intensive care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where doctors said Tuesday he was showing progress but faced a lengthy road back.
Donald Ritchie, historian for the Senate, described it as "a collegial body" that is patient when members miss work for long stretches because of illness.
The 100-member Senate has some members who "are pretty old," Ritchie added. "So we've had a lot of illnesses over the years: strokes, surgeries, all sorts of conditions. And as a general rule, senators feel badly for their colleagues and have given them time to recover."
They've even offered to help ill lawmakers with their duties, as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has for Kirk.
"Senators are part of a small group of individuals, and they go out of their way to help each other," Ritchie said. "Politics aside when it's a personal situation."
Kennedy's brain tumor diagnosis was made public in May 2008, and he kept his Senate seat until his death the next year. He made it to the Senate floor in July 2008 to cast a vote on the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly.
Voting is the one thing a member can't do without being present on the Senate floor, Ritchie said.
Biden, now vice president, had surgery for two aneurysms and was gone from the Senate from February until September 1988, according to the Senate Historical Office.
Johnson, still representing South Dakota in the Senate, was gone for nearly nine months while he underwent a long, grueling rehabilitation. He was back in September 2007 and won another six-year term in November 2008.
LBJ took ill while he was Senate majority leader. He was out from July until December 1955. He later became vice president and then, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, president. He won the presidential election in 1964.
A lawmaker with frequent absences was Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who died at age 100 in 2003. And Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died at age 92 in 2010, was "in his last year, pretty frail," Ritchie said. "But when (Byrd) was needed for votes, he was there."
Senators with dire health problems may choose to resign, Ritchie said, but some don't.
According to Ritchie, the lawmaker absent the longest from the chamber in the post-World War II era was Sen. Carter Glass, a Democrat from Virginia. Suffering from heart problems, he was out from June 1942 until his death on May 28, 1946. Yet he remained influential while he was ill, because as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he got things done with the help of aides — and a telephone.
Ritchie said serious injuries needn't be a career-ender. There's the case of Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who was attacked with a cane on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina in May 1856.
According to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Sumner was unable to return to full duties until December 1859. "His empty desk was a sign of the political tensions of that era," said Ritchie, who said Sumner was ill for years and suffered from vertigo and nausea as a result of being caned by Brooks.
Still, Sumner "went on to become one of the most influential senators in the Civil War and Reconstruction era," according to Ritchie, noting that he authored major civil rights legislation. "It was the only time a senator was physically assaulted on the floor of the Senate," the historian said.