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Back in Congress, Giffords votes for first time since shooting

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Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Back in Congress, Giffords votes for first time since shooting

Congresswoman brings down House in return to floor

  • Giffords, center, wore a blue jacket as she voted in Congress for the first time since January.
    C-SPANGiffords, center, wore a blue jacket as she voted in Congress for the first time since January.
  • Giffords, center, wore a blue jacket as she voted in Congress for the first time since January.
    PBS screengrabGiffords, center, wore a blue jacket as she voted in Congress for the first time since January.

In her first vote since she was shot through the head Jan. 8, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords cast her "aye" for the debt-ceiling compromise bill on Monday.

Giffords received a standing ovation as she entered the House of Representatives for the first time since Congress opened in January.

"I have closely followed the debate over our debt ceiling and have been deeply disappointed at what’s going on in Washington," Giffords said in a press release, the first issued in the congresswoman's own words since the shooting.

"After weeks of failed debate in Washington, I was pleased to see a solution to this crisis emerge. I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics. I had to be here for this vote. I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy," Giffords said.

"The congresswoman insisted on participating," said Giffords' spokesman, C.J. Karamargin.

Giffords received hugs from many of her colleagues when she appeared on the floor on the arm of her husband, retiring astronaut Mark Kelly. Dressed in a blue jacket, she looked thin and frail but had a large smile on her face and waved as she was introduced by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"Throughout America, there isn't a name that stirs more love, more admiration, more respect, more wishing for our daughters to be like her, than the name of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords," Pelosi said.

Pelosi praised Giffords as the "personification of courage… admired throughout the country."

Accompanied by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Giffords could be seen waving to onlookers and appearing to say "thank you," clutching something for balance as she walked over to cast her first vote since the shooting.

'The #Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight.'

The vote was almost immediately overshadowed by Giffords’ surprise appearance as she was mobbed by colleagues on the floor and she recognized the outpouring of emotion. The ovation lasted well over a minute.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, kissed Giffords and other members of the Arizona delegation, on both sides of the aisle, immediately took to Twitter to praise their colleague’s surprise return.

"Seeing @Rep_Giffords on the floor was very emotional for all of us. I hope she’s back for good," Grijalva wrote.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it "excellent new that "Congresswoman Giffords is back and voting tonight!"

Wasserman Schultz, a close friend of Giffords’, said on Twitter she was "so proud to cast my vote for the debt compromise alongside" the Tucson Democrat.

Giffords’ appearance was kept secret until just before she appeared in the House, when her staff tweeted an announcement about her return.

"The #Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight," Giffords tweeted later, the first tweet credited to her since the morning of Jan. 8.

Giffords, who was shot through the left side of her brain, wore a bandage on her right arm. Her hair remains short, after being cropped for a May operation to repair her skull. She also wore glasses, instead of her customary contact lenses. Her chief of staff, Pia Carusone, stood close by and at times steadied her as the House cheered her return.

In 2009 and again last year, Giffords voted against increasing the debt ceiling. "This vote was substantially different, with the strength of the U.S. economy hanging in the balance," her office said in a press release.

"Like the vast majority of Americans, she is extremely disappointed at Washington’s inability to confront the debt ceiling issue in a timely and thoughtful manner," Karamargin said.

Giffords was one of only two Arizona representatives to vote yes on the Budget Control Act of 2011, along with Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff. Her vote did not affect the outcome on the bill, which passed by a comfortable margin of 269-161.

The bill would increase the government's borrowing power by $2.4 trillion through 2013, and cut spending by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years. Most of the cuts would be imposed on non-defense discretionary spending. The Senate will take up the bill Tuesday.

Giffords traveled to Washington, D.C., on Monday, Karamargin said.

Giffords thought the issue was "the most important vote taking place this year," he said. Karamargin declined to speculate on whether Giffords will cast more votes in the near future, as she recovers from the gunshot wound to the head she suffered in the Jan. 8 attack.

Giffords' Southern Arizona colleague, District 7 Rep. Raul Grijalva, voted against the debt ceiling bill.

"Seeing my friend Rep. Giffords come back to work was a wonderful highlight on this disappointing day," Grijalva wrote on his Facebook page.  "It was a very emotional moment for all of us on the floor. I couldn't be happier to see her, and we all hope she continues her amazing recovery. Her constituents are very happy this evening."

While her vote did not affect the outcome, her presence clearly affected the chamber.

“Both sides of the aisle greeted her with a loud standing ovation,” said Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Phoenix, in a statement. “It was a nice way to end what has been a very tense few days in the House.”

"Whatever your politics, it was a thrill Monday to see Congresswoman Giffords back on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and casting a vote along with her colleagues," said Gov. Jan Brewer in a press release.

"The road back from a gunman’s bullet has been more difficult than any of us can possibly know, but her grit and determination continue to inspire. As with all Arizonans, I will hold Gabby in my thoughts and prayers as she continues her remarkable recovery," Brewer said.

"Our hearts were lifted today when Congresswoman Giffords went to the floor of the House to cast her first vote since January 8," said Giffords' staffer Ron Barber on his Facebook page.

"She is a strong and determined person who is making incredible progress. All her staff and I are honored and proud to work for her," said Barber, who was also wounded in the attack.

Giffords' condition

Giffords has made public appearances only in controlled circumstances, and has not spoken in public since the shooting.

The statement released by her office Monday is the first attributed directly to the congresswoman since Jan. 8. All other press releases since the shooting have been credited to her staff.

The 41-year-old congresswoman made a surprise public appearance at a NASA event in June, where her husband, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, was being honored. The astronaut has announced that he would retire from the military, and that he isn't interested in running for the seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl. The couple have a book deal in the works, he said.

The congresswoman made a weekend trip back to Tucson for Father's Day. She has not made an official public appearance, spoken to constituents, or released a statement in her own name since the shooting.

Nearly six months after she was shot through the brain, Giffords struggled to communicate, an aide told a columnist for the Arizona Republic in June.

Giffords searches for words and has trouble putting sentences together, said the congresswoman's chief of staff, Pia Carusone, in a piece by E.J. Montini.

Speaking directly about Giffords' condition and when she might make a public appearance for the first time since the Jan. 8 shooting that claimed the lives of six others, Carusone said Giffords' "communication skills have been impacted the most."

"If you think of it as someone who is able to communicate with you clearly, it is easy to test them. You can ask them a series of questions and you can get clear answers back. Where as with Gabby what we've been able to infer and what we believe is that her comprehension is very good. I don't know about percentage-wise or not, but it's close to normal if not normal."

Giffords is relying on expressions and gestures, rather than speaking, to completely convey her thoughts, Carusone said.

"She is borrowing upon other ways of communicating. Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing. Add it all together and she's able to express the basics of what she wants or needs. But when it comes to a bigger and more complex thought that requires words, that's where she's had the trouble."

After an operation on her skull in May, Carusone told reporters that Giffords' speech was improving, and that she understood abstract concepts.

Giffords "understands, if not everything, close to everything" when presented with complex concepts, Carusone said in May. Giffords is "absolutely curious" about current events, she said.

"She understands sarcastic humor," she said. "Her voice sounds very normal, it sounds as it did before the shooting," she said.

"She's able to fluctuate her volume level" and express being light-hearted or serious with the quality of her voice, Carusone said.

"Her speech is getting better with the constant therapy she's doing."

Giffords was shot through the left side of her brain, which controls speech and language.

6 killed, 13 wounded

Jared Lee Loughner, 22, is accused of killing six, including a nine-year-old girl, and shooting Giffords in the head in what authorities charge was an assassination attempt.

He also is charged with wounding 12 others at the "Congress On Your Corner" meet and greet with constituents at a Northwest Side grocery store on the morning of Jan. 8.

He was found incompetent to stand trial in May, and was sent to a federal facility in Missouri for treatment to restore his ability to understand the charges against him and participate in his defense.

In March, Loughner was charged with 49 federal counts in the attack. Not guilty pleas were entered on his behalf by the court.

Fourteen of the charges Loughner faces could result in the death penalty, if the prosecution seeks it. No decision of whether to ask for capital punishment has been made, authorities have said.

Loughner likely will face local charges in the shooting incident, authorities have said, but only after the federal case is resolved.

Nick Newman of Cronkite News Service contributed to this report.

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