To roaring applause and steady tears, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords received a hero’s tribute on the House floor before officially stepping down from her Congressional seat.
For at least an hour today, the bitter cold of hyper-partisanship melted in the House chamber as Republicans and Democrats put aside their personal and ideological differences to heap praise on Giffords.
The three-term Arizona Democrat, who announced Sunday that she would resign to continue her recovery process after being shot in the head last January, was feted by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as “the brightest star among us; the brightest star Congress has ever seen.”
The California Democrat said she will miss Giffords but told the lawmaker, “Your legacy in this Congress and your leadership to this nation will certainly endure. Thank you for being who you are, for lifting the country at an important and sad time.”
Giffords’ remarkable recovery has become an emotional rallying point for Members over the past year, and her send-off today evoked points of inspiration and calls for bipartisanship. Today’s floor events followed a similarly moving moment Tuesday night when President Barack Obama, moments before delivering his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, embraced a beaming Giffords who made the trek to Washington to witness the speech.
Today, Members from both parties offered soaring remarks to their departing colleague.
“We are inspired, hopeful and blessed for the incredible progress that Gabby has made in her recovery,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told nodding colleagues.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a close Giffords confidant, declared, “None of us on this floor are talented enough to summon the rhetoric that all of us feel in our hearts.”
While the Maryland Democrat drew wide applause, it was Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Giffords’ closest friend in the House, whose comments stirred the most emotion on the floor.
“I couldn’t prepare anything this morning because I knew that I would not be able to hold it together very long,” the Florida Democrat confessed. “I am so proud of my friend and it will always be one of the great treasures of my life to have met Gabby Giffords and to serve with her in this body.”
Wasserman Schultz and Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) escorted Giffords to the well. After the trio made their way, they were joined by others, including Arizona Reps. Jeff Flake (R) and Ed Pastor (D), to listen to Wasserman Schultz’s emotional reading of their friend’s resignation letter.
“From my first steps and first words after being shot to my current physical and speech therapy, I have given all of myself to being able to walk back onto the House floor this year to represent Arizona’s 8th Congressional District,” the letter read by Wasserman Schultz said. “However, today I know that now is not the time. I have more work to do on my recovery before I can again serve in elected office.”
Giffords’ mother, Gloria, and husband, Mark Kelly, sat in the gallery to observe her final day in Congress. Interestingly, Kelly sat in President Barack Obama’s box on Tuesday night and Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) box today, marking the first time in recent memory that an individual has sat in those sections of the House gallery on consecutive days.
Boehner, who oversaw the proceedings from the chair, repeatedly choked back emotion during his colleague’s speeches, particularly Hoyer’s tribute to Giffords. But his stony resolve quickly collapsed when Giffords approached the dais. Helped up the steps by Wasserman Schultz, Giffords began to stumble as she reached the desk, and Boehner along with Giffords’ close friend, helped her to the top. After handing the tearful Speaker her resignation letter, the two briefly embraced. Boehner lifted Giffords’ hand up as the two turned toward the chamber to thunderous applause.
As a tribute on her final day in Congress, the House approved Giffords’ legislation to crack down on cross-border drug smuggling. The measure was approved 408-0 and marked Giffords’ first floor vote since she surprised colleagues by returning to Washington in August to vote on a deal to increase the nation’s debt limit.
An upcoming special election in Arizona’s 8th District to fill the vacancy has already drawn a handful of candidates, including Giffords’ 2010 GOP opponent, Jesse Kelly. Republicans and Democrats say Giffords would have cruised to re-election had she chosen to run, but her exit leaves open a competitive district.
No matter the outcome of that contest, Giffords vowed to return.
“In the end, we come together as Americans to set a course towards greatness,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “Every day I’m working hard. I will recover, and I will return.”