WASHINGTON -- Slowly, with a sense of purpose, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords entered the House chamber last night to cast her first vote since she was shot in the head in January, a dramatic return that surprised colleagues. The chamber erupted in loud, sustained applause as Democrats enveloped Giffords with hugs and kisses.
Only minutes remained on an historic vote on the debt-limit bill. Most lawmakers were staring at the vote board when Giffords (D-Ariz.) made her way through the door on the right side of the chamber. Few knew in advance that she would appear.
Democrats crowded around her as she mouthed "thank-you's." She used one hand to greet some, the other by her side. Her hair was dark and closely cropped, and she wore glasses. Her image was quite different from the one Americans saw seven months ago when she was sworn in by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
In the House chamber, colleagues, stunned and joyful, made their way to greet Giffords.
"It means so much to our country . . . to witness the return of our colleague who is the personification of courage, of sincerity, of admiration throughout the country," Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California told the House.
Her return is "a triumph of the first magnitude and we are all so very proud of her," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).
Giffords cast her vote -- "yes" -- and left the House chamber and the Capitol.
"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 statement released later. "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."
On Jan. 8, Giffords was shot in the head in the parking lot of a Tucson grocery store while meeting with constituents. Six people were killed and 13 others, including Giffords, were wounded.