Watching Giffords’ Return from the Press Gallery

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The press gallery in the House of Representatives is a balcony facing the great semi-circle of seats. Reporters can scrutinize the faces of politicians as they make their arguments. They can also see large digital clocks on the adjacent walls that tally up the votes and count down the seconds of legislative business. One such clock showed a few minutes remaining in Monday’s debt-ceiling vote when the legislators and staffers below began clapping. The applause quickly spread across the room until the whole crowd joined in a standing ovation. Representative Gabrielle Giffords had returned.

It was the first time she had set foot in the chamber since attempted assassin Jared Lee Loughner shot her in the head  in January. The tragedy of her shooting had caused a moment of introspection for a nation caught up in political barb-trading. And as she reentered her place of work, the space experienced a release of bitterness. A Congress known for its petulance and ponderousness was suddenly warm and welcoming.

The sound of clapping (and hooting and hollering) overwhelmed the usual muffled buzz of legislating.  Gifford’s tearful colleagues formed lines to give her hugs and kisses and welcomes.  Giffords cast her vote to raise the debt ceiling to shouts of “One more! One more!” She was part of the majority that passed the legislation. But the significance of the vote was lost in the momentousness of her return.

A few members tried to return to regular business, thanking summer pages for their service. But the room wasn’t ready to move on. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi eventually came to the microphone. There is no name that engenders more respect and admiration, she said, no one we’d rather see our daughters grow to emulate, than Gabrielle Giffords. “Her presence here,” Pelosi said, “brings honor to the chamber.”