Visit by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords brings some peace to Congress
lynn sweet blogs.suntimes.com/sweet August 1, 2011 10:56PM
In this image from House Television, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., center, gets a hug as she appears on the floor of the House of Representatives Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, in Washington. Giffords was on the floor for the first time since her shooting earlier this year, attending a vote on the debt standoff compromise. (AP Photo/House Television)
Updated: November 14, 2011 12:17AM
WASHINGTON — This column was going to be about the Monday House vote on the debt-ceiling bill and the animosity that has gripped Congress — and how people are deluding themselves if they think the deal has bought any peace to Congress.
Then, out of the nowhere, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shows up during the vote and for a few minutes, at least, changes the tone of the place.
I was surprised when I caught sight of her as I rounded a corner, just before she entered the House chamber with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and their friend, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. House Speaker John Boehner left the floor to greet Giffords in the hallway. Her hair was short and dark; she looked frail.
This was the first time Giffords has been in the House chamber since the January assassination attempt on her life where she was shot in the head outside a Tucson supermarket.
It took a few moments for members — and the spectators in the gallery above — to realize that Giffords was back in the House and as they did, you could feel the electricity as she was greeted with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. She came to cast a yes vote for the compromise agreement to raise the debt ceiling, arriving with a few minutes left in the 15-minute voting time.
Vice President Joe Biden was here for the vote. He mingled with House members after it passed, buoyant as the measure advanced to the Senate on a 269-161 roll call. Democrats provided 95 yes votes to 174 for the GOP.
I asked Biden to comment on the joyous reception Giffords received and what that says, what with all the rancorous wrangling surrounding the debt-ceiling debate.
“Here I am hugging Gabby and Michele Bachmann,” Biden said with a big grin.
Biden seemed to relish the retelling of the scene that played out a few moments before: Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican running for president, fueled by Tea Party activists; Biden, the man she wants to defeat; and Giffords, the wounded lawmaker.
You hugged Bachmann?
“I’m being literal. I like Michele Bachmann,” Biden said. The former Delaware senator added, “There is a basic humanity here that matters.”
I also saw Biden and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi hugging in the hallway after the vote. Pelosi had been told earlier Monday that Giffords was returning for the vote. On the House floor, Pelosi said they were hugging.
“Girl hugs,” she said.
Reporters asked Pelosi if the Giffords return marked a mending of the partisan bitterness.
“I hope so. She’s a symbol of that,” Pelosi said.
How the vote went down
I hardly saw much humanity in the past weeks, as the brinksmanship over the debt ceiling issue became the worst I have seen since I started covering Congress at the end of 1993, taking the country to the edge of potential economic disaster.
The Democrats used Monday’s vote as a small exercise in making the other side sweat. Neither side wanted to claim credit or — depending on your perspective — take the blame for the agreement, the subject of much criticism from the left and the right.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip (a whip is someone who goes around to members and asks how they will vote beforehand), told me in advance of the roll, “There is an expectation, because there is an agreement, both parties will be participating in passing the bill.”
Democrats and Republicans ran a “structured” roll call in order to let some of their members who did not really want to vote yes — but would have if they were needed — off the hook.
The Republicans control the chamber and the Democrats — including the Obama White House — wanted to force Republicans to ante up more votes than they really wanted to give. That’s why, during the roll call, Democrats were asked to keep their powder dry and not show their hands until GOP votes were on the board.