WASHINGTON — Emergency legislation to avoid an economy-rattling government default sped through the House Monday night, a scant day before the deadline for action — the dramatic vote made all the more memorable by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' first appearance in Congress since suffering a head wound in a shooting six months ago.
The vote was 269-161, but all eyes were on Giffords, who drew thunderous applause as she walked into the House chamber and cast her vote in favor of the bill.
A final Senate sign-off for the measure is virtually assured on Tuesday.
Giffords made a dramatic entrance Monday night during the crucial debt-limit vote and drew loud applause and cheers from surprised colleagues. They gave her a standing ovation.
As lawmakers stood on the floor, staring up at the vote board, Giffords slowly made her way through an entrance on the Democratic side of the chamber. Applause built and rolled like a wave through the House as lawmakers realized that their colleague had returned.
Vice President Joe Biden was also on hand as she entered the House, escorted by her chief of staff and by Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
On Jan. 8, Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, 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. The man charged in the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges
On the House floor, Giffords hugged and kissed fellow lawmakers. As time ticked off on the vote, Democrats and Republicans made their way toward her.
She cast her first vote — for the debt-limit bill — and left the Capitol.
"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 presence today, to make sure that we honor the obligations of our great country, is important and symbolic," the California Democrat said after the vote. "Her presence here in the chamber as well as her service throughout her entire service in Congress, brings honor to this chamber.
"We are privileged to call her a colleague," Pelosi added. "Some of us are very privileged to call her a friend."
Giffords has been undergoing outpatient therapy in Houston since her release from the hospital in June.
Loughner was sent to a federal prison facility in Springfield, Missouri, after a federal judge concluded he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Giffords voted against two previous increases in the debt ceiling. Her office Monday issued a statement saying this vote was "substantially different, with the strength of the U.S. economy hanging in the balance."
"I had to be here for this vote. I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy," Giffords said.
Her return is "a triumph of the first magnitude and we are all so very proud of her," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
"She's remarkable. Will matters," Biden said in an interview. "She's the embodiment of a strong, strong, strong woman. Think about what that woman's been through, and think about her determination."
As Biden hugged Giffords, Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., joined them.
"Sure, I like Michele Bachmann. We're all standing there and Michele walks up to see Gabby, because she cares about her," Biden said.
Giffords exited the House chamber by the east door, leaning heavily on an aide as she walked with obvious difficulty. Her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, accompanied her. Police had cleared a path through a mob of reporters, and Giffords did not respond to questions and greetings.
Pelosi said Giffords had decided to come for the debt-ceiling vote, something the California congresswoman didn't learn about until Monday morning. After Giffords entered the chamber, Pelosi said, "we were just hugging. Girl hugs."
"It was one of the most thrilling moments for all of us to see this real heroine return to the House," Pelosi said, "and to do so at such a dramatic time."
Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a friend of Giffords, said she found out that the congresswoman would cast her vote from a 2 a.m. text message she received from Kelly.
"It's an incredibly important vote, pivotal for the country. And she felt it was really important that she be here to represent her district," said Wasserman Schultz, who added that Giffords had been reviewing the legislation.
"She still has rehabilitation to go through and a lot of recovery. So she's not ready to come back full time. But she wanted her district to have its voice here on probably the most important vote we'll cast this Congress," Wasserman Schultz said.
In Tucson, Pam Simon, a Giffords staffer who also survived the shooting, said she and everyone in her office huddled around the TV to watch the congresswoman's return to the floor.
"We were glued to it," she said. "We were hugging and some of us were in tears and some people were shouting. It was very joyful."
As a fellow survivor, Simon said she was "absolutely thrilled."
"I felt extremely emotional," she said. "It's a landmark. It signifies how far we've all come.
"We will be forever tied to that tragic event," she added. "Seeing Gabby there is just a wonderful step for us all."
She said she thought Giffords looked excited yet relaxed.
"Knowing Gabby, I know she is just so happy to be back among her colleagues," she said. "Didn't she look right at home?"
Shortly after her appearance, a tweet appeared on Giffords' Twitter account: "The Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight."
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