House Passes Debt Deal as Gabby Giffords Makes a Celebrated Return

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Photo By Tom Williams / Roll Call

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., arrives to the Capitol after recovering from a gunshot would to the head sustained January 8th in Tucson.

The House passed a bipartisan measure 269-161 to trim federal deficits and raise the debt ceiling on Monday evening, with Democratic and Republican leaders sewing together a loose, centrist coalition to overcome the objections of the wings of each party and advance the bill to the Senate just one day before the Treasury Department would have to take drastic action or face default. In a dramatic turn, the chamber broke out in thunderous applause mid-vote as Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who has been rehabilitating from a gunshot wound to the head, returned to the House for the first time since an attempt on her life in January left her severely wounded. 

The proposal, endorsed by both Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, would raise the debt ceiling through 2013, enact almost $1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts over 10 years, and call for the formation of a special commission to find an additional $1.5 trillion in savings by November. The Senate is expected to pass the measure with little trouble midday Tuesday, and the White House has issued an official policy statement saying that Obama will sign it.

With no tax immediate tax increases or plans to juice the economy, the measure’s passage through the House marked a unprecedented movement toward austerity set in motion by sweeping conservative gains in Congress last fall.  However, the Tea Party members most committed to that cause largely voted against it. Objections to the inclusion of deep defense cuts, insufficient advancement for a constitutional balanced budget amendment and the possibility of tax increases down the road led 66 Republicans to buck their leadership and vote against the bill. Nonetheless, Boehner managed to deliver 174 Republicans — a strong majority of his conference — to ensure passage.

Giffords’ appearance in middle of the vote was almost a show-stopper. She joined 94 other Democrats in supporting the bill, many of whom delayed recording their support until the last possible minute  in hopes of forcing tough votes for Republicans and a heavy lift for Boehner. Ninety-five Democrats also opposed the bill, largely on the grounds that it exclusively cut spending without immediately enacting any revenue increases.

For all the cold cynicism and partisan backstabbing of the debt debate, Giffords’ return was a striking moment of light and warmth. Members of the House lined up to embrace the congresswoman and heartily cheered her appearance as she silently voiced the words “thank you” over and over amid the din. Vice President Joe Biden unexpectedly materialized from the crowd to greet Giffords. “That’s why I came up,” he said. “I wanted to give her a hug.” The partisan battlefield of the House, which has played stage to empty symbolic votes and maneuvering for so many weeks, finally did something real on Monday evening. It paved the way to raise the debt ceiling too.

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