Senator Mark Kirk
Kirk in 2010

At presstime, Senator Mark Kirk, 52, was still recuperating at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago after his late-January stroke. For now, the staff of the freshman Republican from Illinois has been left to soldier on without him. Who is running the show in Kirk’s absence? How long can things continue this way? And how is the situation likely to affect us, his constituents?

Experts say that Kirk’s absence hasn’t really changed how his three offices (Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Springfield) run. A U.S. senator’s office is “essentially a small business,” says Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “The senator is the CEO, but [handling] constituent requests, representing the state in terms of negotiations—a lot of that is done by staff and between staffs.”

Kirk serves on four Senate committees, the most important of which is appropriations. But his staffers—there are 27 in D.C. alone—can give proxy votes for him on those committees. Heck, they do that even when the senator is on the job. Illinois’s senior senator, Dick Durbin, a Democrat, has stepped in to help Kirk’s staff, including advancing some of Kirk’s bills—a gesture that’s not unusual in these kinds of cases, says Senate historian Donald Ritchie, even when the ailing lawmaker is from a different party.

Pretty much the only thing that Kirk’s staff can’t do for their boss is vote on the Senate floor. Senators must be physically present in the chamber to cast votes. Because Kirk is one of 47 Republicans, for now his party does not need his vote to get to the 41 needed to filibuster. But his participation could become more crucial after the November Senate elections—especially if the Republicans pick up seats, as some Capitol Hill watchers expect.

Will Kirk be back in action by then? Hard to say. Richard Harvey, the doctor who is overseeing the senator’s care, said in a statement that he is “adapting well” to rehab, walking on a treadmill, and completing small tasks; previous reports indicated that Kirk may have some lasting paralysis on his left side. Whatever the prognosis, Ritchie highly doubts that Kirk will step down: “A U.S. senator has never vacated his seat based on health issues.” (See “A Senate Perk: Unlimited Sick Leave.”)

If Kirk, whose term ends in 2016, were to resign, Democrats stand to benefit, because Illinois governor Pat Quinn would appoint his replacement (and presumably choose a fellow Democrat). That person would serve temporarily until a special election could be held.

At least for now, say political insiders, neither Democrats nor Republicans are playing the replacement-talk game. “I have not heard any discussions,” says Steve Brown, a spokesman for Michael Madigan, chair of the state’s Democratic Party. Says Pat Brady, Madigan’s Republican counterpart: “I would expect Mark to run for reelection.” Eventually, though, the argument that Illinois is being shortchanged and needs two working senators could gather steam.

What would happen if the Senate went 50-50? Consider some recent history. In December 2006, four years into his second term, Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota, suffered a brain aneurysm and lay in a coma for a month before undergoing nine months of rehab. His absence put the Democrats’ one-vote 51–49 majority in serious jeopardy. If Johnson had quit or died, South Dakota’s Republican governor would have appointed his replacement, most likely a Republican, making the party split even and giving Dick Cheney, the vice president, the power to break tie votes—a nightmarish proposition for Dems. “The deal with Johnson was, he didn’t have to vote, he didn’t have to do anything,” recalls one Capitol Hill Democrat. “He [just] had to stay alive and in the Senate.”


Photograph: Nam Y. Huh/AP