When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) returned to Congress during Monday evening’s bipartisan debt-ceiling vote, the historic moment united those on both sides of the aisle as well as on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Vice President Biden told more than a dozen reporters crowded into a hallway off the House chamber after Giffords’s arrival Monday night that the bipartisan outpouring of joy at her return found him face-to-face on the House floor with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) — a fierce critic of President Obama and a contender for the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination.
“Here I’m hugging Gabby and Michele Bachmann,” Biden said, recounting the scene on the House floor. “Seriously! I’m being literal!”
“You hugged Michele Bachmann?” one incredulous reporter asked.
“Sure!” Biden said. “I like Michele Bachmann. For real. ... We’re all standing there around, and Michele walks up to see Gabby, because she cares about her. I mean, look. The thing that sometimes gets lost in this place — maybe I spent too much time here as a senator -- there is a basic humanity here, man. It matters between people. I know that sounds corny.”
A Bachmann spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night.
Biden, who was already at the Capitol Monday lobbying Democrats to support the debt compromise, said he had received word from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of Giffords’s return only “a few minutes” before her arrival.
“Look, don’t let anybody know, but we’re going to have Gabby here,” Biden said Pelosi told him.
He said that he and Giffords “commiserated about the steps of recovery” Monday — Biden has had two craniotomies — and joked that he told her: “Now we’re both members of the cracked-head club.”
He also reflected on the tenacity of Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, who in June commanded the final, 16-day flight of the space shuttle Endeavour.
“Think about what that woman’s been through, and think about her determination,” he told reporters. “And think about, at the same time all that’s going on — a lot of you are married — think about at the same time that’s going on, you’re the husband or you’re the injured party, either one, and one’s going to space and one’s trying to get back to earth. Think about it. It’s an incredible family.”
“She’s remarkable,” he said emphatically. “Will matters. Will matters.”
As dozens of aides, lawmakers and onlookers crowded into the halls just outside the House chamber in the commotion after Monday’s vote, Giffords’s Democratic and Republican colleagues said they were overjoyed — and stunned — by her return.
Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) called Giffords’s surprise return for Monday’s debt-limit vote “a spectacular coda to the story.”
“I was standing behind one of the computers anxiously watching the vote totals,” Andrews said. “And I heard all this applause erupt and I thought, ‘Why is this?’ I mean, something odd just happened. And then word quickly spread.”
Although he didn’t get to speak with her on the House floor because of the crowd, Andrews joked that he noted Giffords “voted the right way.”
“As low as that Saturday morning was, this was equally high,” he said, referring to the January day that Giffords was shot. “As shocked and as rattled as we were on that Saturday morning, this was equally, spectacularly good. ... After all the sourness and bitterness and ugliness of this process, it was a beautiful human moment that reminded us what really counts.”
Rep. Trent Franks (R), like Giffords a member of Arizona’s House delegation, called it “a heart-moving privilege to see Gabby on the floor tonight.”
“I had the chance just to tell her how glad we were to see her and to hug her,” Franks said. “I’m just so grateful that every once in a while, with all the tragedies and ugliness in life, that someone just comes along and transcends it with just a warm, loving spirit and a commitment that just rises above the heartache. ... She has personified what persistence and courage and the human heart are all about.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) called Giffords’s arrival Monday night “nothing short of magical.”
“It was a blessing to everyone,” said Ellison, who like Giffords is a member of the class of 2006. “And I mean, quite frankly, today is the first day of Ramadan for me, it’s a very spiritual time. So for her to walk through that door was spiritually uplifting. She and I are classmates, and I’ve always had a lot of affection for her and a friendship with her. To see her walk through that door – I almost got weepy, man. I almost got a little sloppy. I was just so happy to see her.”
Giffords’s return, he added, “means that she is a dedicated public servant. And she is iron-willed and that she loves this country and everybody in it and she wouldn’t let anything stop her from doing what she saw as her duty.”
Asked about the meaning of Giffords’s return for Monday’s vote, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said the message was simple: “Welcome back, Gabby.”
“I mean, it’s not about the vote,” he said. “It’s about her being back, being with us, hanging in there and overcoming this astonishing event. Honestly, the vote was nothing. Her presence was everything.”
As for Biden, one reporter wanted to know what the vice president told Bachmann when the two embraced.
Biden responded with a smile: “I said, ‘Great to see you, Michele.’”