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Giffords Captures Spotlight as House Passes Debt Deal

The House easily passed a deal to increase the nation’s debt limit Monday evening following the dramatic entrance of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords onto the floor, then promptly began its summer recess.

The bill now advances to the Senate, which plans to hold a vote at noon Tuesday.

Colleagues greeted the Arizona Democrat with a prolonged, thunderous standing ovation as she entered the chamber with her husband, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Vice President Joseph Biden. It was Giffords’ first trip to Washington since being shot in the head on Jan. 8 while talking with her constituents in Tucson, Ariz.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Rep. George Miller (Calif.) and dozens of other Democratic lawmakers huddled around the east door of the chamber as Giffords slowly made her way inside and through the throng of well-wishers. Many of them, including Pelosi, teared up as they embraced their colleague.

Biden, who escorted Giffords off the floor following the vote, said he told her, “She’s now a member of the cracked head club like me, with two craniotomies. … It was just so good to see her.”

“The rest is private conversation,” he said.

After the vote, Giffords posted to her Twitter account, “The Capitol looks beautiful, and I am honored to be at work tonight.”

Her appearance on the floor clearly caught most of the chamber off guard. Republicans and Democrats had appeared to be settling in for a prolonged staring contest over the vote to pass the debt ceiling and deficit reduction package, and the tallies had stalled out with around 180 in support of the bill and just over 100 votes against.

But with lawmakers and dozens of journalists distracted by Giffords’ return, scores of lawmakers quickly registered their votes, resulting in the 269-161 vote. Democrats split evenly, with Giffords and 94 others voting “yes,” while 95 voted “no.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also lost 66 Republicans on the final vote.

The office of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) alerted Members shortly after the vote that it would be the last for the month, marking the beginning of the chamber’s summer recess. The next votes in the House are scheduled for Sept. 7.

The bipartisan vote came after months of often ugly partisan bickering and will likely mean Washington will not have to raise the limit again until after the 2012 elections.

The bill now goes to the Senate, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said a vote will be held at noon Tuesday. That chamber is also expected to clear the bill on a bipartisan basis, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature just hours before the day’s end, when the Treasury Department estimates that the nation would otherwise begin defaulting on its debts.

A Statement of Administration Policy released Monday evening expressed strong support for the bill, saying the president would sign it into law if it reaches his desk.

Pelosi called Giffords’ return “important and symbolic” and said it “brings honor to this chamber.”

“We are all privileged to call her colleague and some of us are very privileged to call her friend,” Pelosi said in the brief floor statement.

Members were “shocked” by the arrival of their “heroine” colleague, Pelosi said.

“I knew that she was coming. But until she actually came, we weren’t sure whether it would happen,” Pelosi told reporters off the floor after the vote.

Giffords’ appearance on the floor was “above and beyond the call of duty to come all this way for this important vote,” Pelosi added.

“We had our girl talk, yes. And girl hugs, and all that,” Pelosi said with a laugh. “But it’s pretty thrilling personally, and officially.”

Asked what it meant to have Giffords rejoin her colleagues after such a grueling debate, Pelosi said, “I think it was appropriate she was here when there was such a bipartisan vote on the floor. And one that meant so much in terms of the full faith and credit of our country to honor our obligations. She honored us with her presence and her vote.”

Giffords was shot in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8 in an attack that killed six people and wounded several others. She was released from a Houston rehabilitation hospital in June to continue her recuperation in the League City, Texas, home of her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.

Kelly, who commanded the space shuttle Endeavor’s final mission in May, and the members of his crew will meet Tuesday afternoon with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, according to the White House.

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