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How Long Can A Senator Stay Away?

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How Long Can A Senator Stay Away?

Mark Kirk hasn't appeared in public since he suffered a stroke in January.

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Sen. Mark Kirk has not been seen in public since he suffered a stroke in January. Reporters are finally starting to ask when he might be back. On Wednesday, at Kirk’s Chicago office Rep. Randy Hultgren delivered an “Updated Report on Illinois Debt,” which was written by the senator this month. The news media were more interested in Illinois’s senator debt than its financial debt, repeatedly asking Kirk staffers about their boss’s health.

Reporters were told that “Any health updates that involve the senator are being handled by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago” -- which is not legally allowed to answer question about Kirk’s health.

That wasn’t good enough for Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business.

“Illinoisans deserve full representation in the Senate and almost certainly are inclined to give the senator the time he needs to recover,” Hinz wrote. “But it’s been long enough now that voters deserve some answers so that they and the political establishment can begin to plan for a perhaps changed world.”

How long can Kirk remain absent from the Senate before his constituents start talking about his resignation? The figure I’ve heard is a year. That’s how long Rep. Gabrielle Giffords waited before resigning from Congress after the State of the Union address. Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota was absent from the Senate for nine months after suffering a stroke in 2006.

But those aren’t the longest absences from Congress. That record belongs to Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who was gone for three years -- and was re-elected during that period. Sumner’s convalescence was tolerated because it was a political statement against the injury that caused it.

On May 20, 1856, Sumner, an abolitionist, delivered a speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the residents of those new states to vote on whether they would allow slavery. In the course of his oration, Sumner urged that the history of South Carolina -- the most ardent pro-slavery state -- be “blotted out of existence.” He also mocked the speech patterns of South Carolina Sen. Andrew Butler, who had suffered a stroke.

Butler’s nephew, Preston Brooks, was a congressman from South Carolina. Brooks avenged the insults to his uncle and his home state by invading the Senate chamber and beating Sumner into unconsciousness with a gold-tipped gutta percha cane.

Sumner returned to Massachusetts to recover his wounds, as well as the headaches and nightmares caused by the attack. That fall, the legislature re-elected him, as an anti-slavery statement. But Sumner didn’t take his seat when Congress reconvened. He sailed to Europe to convalesce, and did not resume his duties until December 1859, three-and-a-half years after his caning.

Sumner was able to stay away so long because, during those pre-Civil War years, his empty seat was seen as a testament to the violence the South would employ to preserve slavery. Could Kirk stay away three years? Probably not, but if he did, it wouldn’t be unprecedented.

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