WASHINGTON — Quiet symbols and quiet words ruled the House of Representatives on Wednesday, as lawmakers paused to pay tribute to their critically wounded colleague, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
In a place not known for subtlety, small scenes sent the loudest messages. A solitary, white-clothed table sat in the middle of the vast Cannon House Office Building rotunda, where the public and VIPs could take one of five pens from a glass and sign messages of condolence and good wishes.
Outside Giffords' Washington office, Room 1030 of the Longworth House Office Building, the usually bustling hall was eerily silent and empty.
And on the House floor, on a day once scheduled to feature a polarizing vote to repeal last year's health care law, the only business was a four-page resolution memorializing Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and the six killed and 13 others wounded during Saturday's rampage in Tucson.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, set the day's tone.
"Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not. This is a time for the House to lock arms, in prayer for those fallen and wounded, and in resolve to carry on the dialogue of democracy," he said, struggling to hold back tears. "We may not yet have all the answers, but we already have the answer that matters most: that we are Americans, and together we will make it through this. We will have the last word."
The House chamber even looked different on Wednesday — no stacks of papers on the desks, no staffers shuttling in and out, no knots of lawmakers huddling to plot strategy.
Republicans still spoke from a podium on one side of the chamber, and Democrats from the other side, but without a guidebook it was hard to discern anyone's politics. The tributes went on for hours, interrupted only at midday for a members-only prayer service.
Giffords, who was shot while hosting a "Congress on Your Corner" meeting outside a Tucson grocery store Saturday, was lauded with words personal and lofty.
Colleagues spoke of "Gabby," a lively lawmaker known for her easy way with people, and how that approachability seemed to compound the tragedy.
"It hits too close to home," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
Learn a lesson from this, urged Rep. Al Green, D-Texas. He quoted Martin Luther King: "We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools."
Some speakers confronted the era's vicious political dialogue.
"We do not know the specific motive which led the perpetrator of this crime to act. Nor can we draw conclusions as to specific causes," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "But it is a time for us to reflect on the heightened anger being projected in our public debate and the daily denigration of those with whom we disagree."
That kind of plea echoed throughout the day.
All morning, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., sat in a third row House seat alone, arms often folded over her chest.
McCarthy's husband was killed and her son wounded by a gunman in a shooting rampage on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993. She ran for Congress in 1996 after being enraged by the incumbent's vote to weaken the assault weapons ban.
In the afternoon, McCarthy offered a message.
"It's so parallel (to the New York incident), it's scary," she said, remembering how six were killed on the train, and 19 injured.
Yet, McCarthy gently insisted, now is no time for despair.
"This is really a message of hope, because my son did survive," she said. "Many of the victims survived."
Trying to hold her emotions in check, she assured her colleagues: "I'll say to all of you, time will heal you. You'll never forget, but time will make you smile again."
Giffords will too, she said.
While "it's just a shame that a tragedy has to bring us all together," McCarthy said, "Gabby is going to be fine, and she will be back here, and she will be over there hugging people, talking to people."
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