08.02.11

Giffords’ Bipartisan Message

With her surprise appearance, the Arizona congresswoman rebuked the partisan rancor that has dominated the debt debate. Peter J. Boyer talks to her staff about her message of unity.

The vote itself was not especially meaningful to the outcome—Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ “yea” was one of 269, giving the bipartisan debt-ceiling compromise comfortable passage in the House of Representatives. But when Giffords, accompanied by her husband, the former astronaut Mark Kelly, boarded a commercial airliner bound from Houston to Washington on Monday, part of her purpose was to deliver a message.

“She insisted on being there,” said Giffords staffer C. J. Karamargin, who, with other Giffords aides, watched from the congresswoman’s Tucson office as his boss cast her first vote on the House floor since being shot in the head last January.

Giffords had voted “nay” on two earlier debt-ceiling raises, in 2009 and in 2010. But, according to people in her circle, she had been dismayed by the partisan rancor impeding a solution to the crisis, and determined in the last few days to have her say. “I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics,” said a statement released by Giffords’ staff and attributed to her. “I had to be here for this vote.”

Giffords’ appearance in the House, where she was led through a side entrance by John Boehner, and was accompanied to her seat by her friend and colleague, Rep. Deborah Wasserman-Schultz, came as a surprise to most of her colleagues. They, along with much of the country, had wondered when, if ever, Giffords would return to the chamber. The story of her recovery from the damage caused by a 9-mm. bullet passing through her brain has been a saga of soaring hopes and the sobering reality of a long, grueling rehabilitation.

When her presence became apparent on Monday, the routine business of the moment (a tribute to House pages) halted, and Giffords was greeted with a standing ovation. She smiled and, using her left arm, waved to her colleagues.

Among those who had been told of Giffords’ return was Vice President Joe Biden, who met with her privately for several minutes. “I said, ‘Now we’re both members of the cracked-head club,’ ” Biden later told reporters. “You know, I had two craniotomies.”

Video screenshot

The occasion, shaped by the influence of the Tea Party, seemed a fitting one for Giffords, to whom so much political symbolism has been attached since the January shooting. In the immediate aftermath, some political partisans sought to link the rhetoric of the Tea Party protesters to an atmosphere that lent itself to political extremism, even violence. A new era of civility was declared, but it proved to be short-lived. On the day of Giffords’ return to Washington, Biden presided over a meeting with Democrats, angry about the debt-and-spending compromise, who declared the Tea Party Republicans to be “terrorists” for threatening default in order to cut spending.

“The vice president does not believe it’s an appropriate term in political discourse,” a Biden spokeswoman later told Politico.

Giffords’ aide Karamargin said her vote affirming the compromise was characteristic of her record in Congress. “The congresswoman has always been convinced that Washington can work together and find common ground when they set aside partisanship and work for the common good,” he said. “She’s believed that to be true when it comes to border issues, when it comes to defense issues, and when it comes to economic issues. These are principles that she has lived by from the very beginning.”

I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics.

That reputation for moderation heightened Giffords’ appeal as the nation followed her recovery, cheering every tidbit of good news. Inevitably, the matter of her political future arose, and there was briefly speculation that she might run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jon Kyl. That speculation faded when it became clear that Giffords’ recovery, though remarkable under the circumstances, is far from reaching the point that would allow the rigors of a Senate campaign. Giffords, Kelly, and her political team have not yet decided whether she will seek reelection to her House seat.

Giffords will remain in Washington for a few days, joining her husband as he visits the White House to celebrate the last flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, before returning to Houston, where she will continue her rehabilitation.