WASHINGTON — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to the Capitol on Monday, her first appearance there since she was shot in the head in January, to cast an emotionally charged vote in favor of the debt reduction deal.
The Arizona Democrat walked quietly into the House of Representatives chamber through a side door, and the tension that was dominating the voting on the controversial deal suddenly dissipated.
Instead of watching the votes go up on the electronic boards above, members of the House — Democrats and Republicans alike — burst into applause as Giffords, her hair cropped short and wearing glasses, stepped inside.
It was an emotional moment rarely seen in the ornate chamber. Lawmakers surrounded her, hugged her, and watched her smile broadly and finally take a seat in the back.
Vice President Joe Biden, who'd spent his day lobbying Democrats to vote for the bill, was beaming.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "She's the embodiment of a strong, strong, strong, woman. Think about what that woman's been through, and think about her determination."
The response to Giffords, at least for a moment, stripped the room of politics.
"Maybe I spent too much time here in the Senate," said Biden, who before becoming the vice president in 2009 was a senator for 36 years. "But there is a basic humanity here. It matters, between people. I know it sounds corny."
Giffords' surprise appearance was remarkable because it had happened at all.
On Jan. 8, Giffords was shot at her "Congress on Your Corner" event outside a supermarket in Tucson. Six people were killed, including a federal judge. The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, was wrestled to the ground by people in the crowd and arrested.
Despite being wounded in the head, Giffords made a miraculous recovery. In June, she made her first public appearance since the shooting at a Houston event honoring her husband, Mark Kelly, an astronaut.
But it was uncertain when, if ever, she'd return to the Capitol, and there'd been no hint that she'd be back Monday.
Until she suddenly appeared. At that point, the debt deal had about 200 votes, and it needed 16 more to pass.
The vote count instantly soared, finally reaching 269.
Shortly afterward, Giffords Tweeted: "The Capitol looks beautiful, and I am honored to be at work tonight."
(Adam Sege contributed to this story.)
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