By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 8:36 PM
On Saturday, one member of Congress took a bullet to the head - and 434 of her colleagues stared into the abyss.
On Wednesday, chastened lawmakers returned to the Capitol vowing to change their hostile ways.
There was virtually no finger-pointing at anybody other than the crazed man who killed six and wounded 20, including the assassin's target, Arizona Democrat Gabby Giffords. Yet there was also agreement that even if this tragedy wasn't directly caused by political speech, the leaders' overheated words are endangering the health of the republic -- and the lives of its legislators. Their grief was compounded by Giffords's role as a centrist lawmaker who worked to overcome the partisan bitterness.
And so, a day that was originally supposed to see a fiery clash over repealing the health-care law turned out to be the most uplifting day in Congress at least since the Sept. 11 attacks. Breaking only for a prayer service, the members spent eight hours exchanging vows to do better by each other.
Rep. Trent Franks, the Arizona Republican who not long ago called President Obama "an enemy of humanity," said the shooting "was a reminder to me of... just how important it really is for each of us to seize every moment and to speak kind and loving words to each other while we still can."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), among the chamber's bomb throwers, said he decided that "we need to be respectful of the fact that people on the other side of major issues are as intelligent as we are and as moral as we are.... Let's be kinder to each other, and let's send that as a present, a get-well message, to Gabby."
Though the victim was from their side of the aisle, Democrats made no attempt to wave the bloody shirt, instead vowing, as minority whip Steny Hoyer put it, "to reflect on our own responsibility to temper our words and respect those with whom we disagree, lest the failure to do so give incitement to the angriest and most unstable among us."
Had it not been brought about by tragedy, the members' behavior would have seemed downright corny. They spoke of each other as family, as brothers and sisters. They crossed the aisle through the day to praise each others' tributes. For once, all but a few kept their BlackBerrys in their pockets and listened to the speeches. A few of them wept.
"She represents a beacon of hope, perhaps our last, best hope to restore civility to the important public debates of our day," Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) told her colleagues. "So the next time that a debate heats up and threatens to get ugly, let's remember our responsibilities as leaders.... Let's take a deep breath and agree to disagree agreeably. Let's do that for Gabby."
As it happened, the best and worst of American politics was on display Wednesday morning. The ugly side emerged a few hours before the debate in the form of a Facebook posting by Sarah Palin. Rather than soften her own excesses (in this case, the map showing bull's-eyes over Giffords' and other districts with accompanying instructions to "RELOAD") Palin defended her actions and inflamed the debate further by accusing her opponents of a "blood libel" - a reference to centuries of anti-Semitism.
Happily, the lawmakers did not fall for Palin's provocations. Speaker John Boehner, who distinguished himself with his original response to the shooting - "an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve" - began Wednesday's session with an admonition that "we gather here without distinction of party."
The notoriously weepy speaker, sitting alone in the front row of the chamber, wiped a tear from his eye as the clerk read the resolution and choked up as he spoke. But this time, he had company in his tears.
There's no telling how long the new spirit will last, if at all. But for a moment, at least, the lawmakers confronted their own mortality after watching one of their own fall to a gunman. "Americans see each of us taking this personally," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), and indeed they did. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) admitted that "nobody ever thought Saturday would happen." Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) read John Donne's poem, "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
"Violence has entered our House and injured one of our own," said Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), calling on his colleagues to "get back together."
Some of the hardest partisans came to the well with tender reminiscences.
"If there is a sweeter, kinder, more gentle member of the House, I know not their name," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). "This House is not whole without her smile."
The irascible Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) noted that "Gabby knows I love chocolate."
The Democrats reciprocated. "Our gathering," said liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), "reflects the truth of America's first motto, which is above this chamber, e pluribus unum - out of many, we are one."
Across the aisle, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) looked up to examine the stained-glass eagle bearing those Latin words.
For a day, at least, they pledged to live by that motto. They said they would "search our souls" (Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio), turn "down the partisan rhetoric" (Michael McCaul, R-Texas), "differ without demonizing one another" (Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc.), "remember what really matters and that is civility should rule the day" (Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio), and realize that "we are all in this together" (Bruce Braley, D-Iowa).
Among the most moving tributes came from Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was killed by a gunman in 1993. "Gabby would be so proud of this chamber today," she said. "It's just a shame that a tragedy has to bring us all together.... But this is what we as a nation have to learn, we can disagree, but we need to work together. That is what Gabby wants."