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As if She’ll Return Any Moment

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been gone 10 weeks, but her offices must keep functioning. Legislative Director Peter Ambler and Chief of Staff Pia Carusone, her top aides, run things in her absence.

Correction Appended

Pia Carusone, chief of staff to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), reels off a string of questions and thoughts to the staff.

“Looks like we have a constituent in Japan,” she says, scanning a message on her BlackBerry.

“Did we tweet the pictures from the event yesterday?”

“And what smells so bad in the fridge?”

The scene is typical, but the circumstances are not. Carusone, 30, is a normal multitasking House chief of staff, part legislative expert, part cat-herder, part den parent. And the office is a typical Congressional operation with endless phone calls and lots of meetings. But these are the people hard at work while their boss lies in a hospital bed in Houston, undergoing intense therapy after being shot in the head 10 weeks ago.

After the shock and the confusion, Giffords’ office has found its new normal. Employees have settled into a rhythm, carrying on much like they did before the shooting.

But sometimes the staffers have to step in for the boss. Carusone is no shrinking violet, but she says she struggled with that new responsibility.

 “As a staffer, it’s just not in my DNA to be in the spotlight,” she says, “but you get over that really quickly when you realize it’s what she’d want, and when you realize that we still have a lot of ability to help people.”

Legislative Assistant Elaine Ulrich agrees. Her job, which focuses on boosting the use of solar power, isn’t much different from before. She still organizes educational events, does research and writes speeches. Only now, sometimes she has to deliver those addresses herself.

Recently, Ulrich had to videotape a speech to an Arizona group, the kind of thing that Giffords herself would have nailed in one take. Ulrich had to record several takes, with the help of an intern acting as a teleprompter.

“That’s why I’m a staffer,” she says.

A Little Help From Her Friends

When it comes to Giffords’ committee and legislative work, the office relies on help from other Members of Congress. Staffers might feel comfortable stepping in for Giffords at events or even channeling her when deciding what issues to focus on, but there’s one role that they can’t play: legislator.

Giffords has introduced one bill this Congress, a measure to reduce Congress’ pay by 5 percent that she proposed the day before the shooting. Her staff has no plans to drop other legislation anytime soon, although Carusone says they are finding ways to let Giffords make her legislative mark. “We’re working on getting bills into the hands of Members who can introduce them on her behalf.”

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