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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, its just not in my DNA to be in the spotlight, she says, but you get over that really quickly when you realize its what shed 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, isnt 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.

Thats why Im 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 theres one role that they cant 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. Were working on getting bills into the hands of Members who can introduce them on her behalf.

In committee hearings, the staff relies on Giffords colleagues to ask the questions that they think she would want answers to. Last Tuesday, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) asked questions during a Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing that had been provided to him by Giffords office.

And Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), whose office says he is a colleague and close friend to Giffords, asks questions on her behalf during his hearings.

Adam works closely with her office to ensure her priorities are addressed, a Smith aide said.

Giffords colleagues have also helped with fundraising: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and several other Democratic lawmakers attended a fundraiser last Tuesday that collected more than $125,000 for the Arizona Democrat.

A Day in the Life

On a recent afternoon, the office is operating much like any of the other 434. Carusone calls an applicant for a caseworker position thats open in the Tucson, Ariz., office. When can you start? she asks, then moments later suggests the following Monday. We have a lot of people who need your help, she tells him.

A lobbyist from Arizona University comes by to update Carusone and two other aides. They talk about funding, visits to campus and programs to help veterans adjust to academic life.

Meanwhile, the air hums with the tap-tapping of fingers on keyboards, ringing phones and staffers chatter.

Even though the Giffords operation looks like a typical Congressional office, some of the days business is dictated by the shootings. Carusone and Legislative Director Peter Ambler huddle in advance of a phone call that Carusone makes to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The Giffords aides are trying to get space in the Capitol Visitor Center named after Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords director of community outreach who was killed by the same gunman who wounded the Congresswoman. The Senate staffer on the phone isnt optimistic. Naming rights are a touchy subject, he says.

Carusone hangs up, a look of chagrin passing over her face as she turns to other business.

Whatever.

Keeping Notes

Another new job for the Giffords staffers is compiling detailed records of whats happening in Congress, in the district and in the office. They write up comprehensive weekly reports on the bills that have passed, the major events of the week and the media stories driving the news.

Those will ultimately wind up in binders that Giffords can use to catch up on what she missed, Carusone says. I think a lot about what we can do to document this for her, she says.

And two interns from the University of Marylands graduate library studies program have joined the office to collect and catalogue the more than 20,000 well-wishing cards, letters and e-mails that have flooded the office.

Carusone says she speaks to Giffords during regular visits to the Houston hospital about whats happening in Washington, D.C., but she keeps her conversation general. I told her that theres talk about a government shutdown, she says. We dont go into as much detail as we would have in a normal situation.

Exactly when Giffords might be ready to read those books isnt clear though in the Longworth office, its taken as an article of faith that the boss will be back. The lawmakers doctors most recent public assessment was relatively rosy: She can follow conversations, speak sometimes in full sentences and even walk with some help.

Giffords path back to Washington isnt certain, but her staffers operate as if it were, as if at any second, Giffords might just walk into the room.

Still, for all the normalcy, its difficult to forget this is a tribe for whom tragedy is still fresh. After Carusone hires the new caseworker, she calls a staffer in the Tucson office to ready a new workspace.

Not in Gabes old desk, she says into the phone. Its too soon.

And while Members of Congress have pitched in to help Giffords office on the legislative front, theyre also showing their support in more tangible ways.

Like neighbors who show sympathy in times of crises with casseroles and cookies, Members of both parties provide a daily lunch for the staff. Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) sent rotisserie chickens, and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) personally delivered pizza.

Last Friday, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) bought spaghetti and garlic bread, and the staffers gathered in the Congresswomans office to eat and banter. The room isnt sacred space left empty in Giffords absence; even before the shooting, the always-on-the-go lawmaker spent little time sequestered there, and the staff used the large room for meetings.

Still, its filled with mementos, including a particularly poignant framed photo of a rocket launch. Below the image, Giffords husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, wrote an inscription, an artifact from a more carefree time. To my favorite Congresswoman, on and off the planet, it reads. Love Always, Mark.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.

Correction: March 21, 2011

The article misstated the title of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

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