September 28, 2017 at 6:41 PM
For the past 15 weeks, every gathering of House Republican leaders has had one thing in common: an empty chair, marking the absence of Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
It was a sign of respect for the boisterous Louisianian and a reminder of the quiet anguish that has beset Capitol Hill since a lone gunman, targeting GOP lawmakers practicing in Virginia for a charity baseball game, wounded Scalise and four others on June 14.
That heartache evaporated Thursday in the great roar that greeted Scalise as he made a surprise return to a packed House chamber and addressed his colleagues for the first time since the shooting.
"I'm definitely a living example that miracles really do happen," Scalise said.
The rifle rounds fired by James T. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old unemployed Illinois home inspector who opposed President Trump, did grievous damage to Scalise. As he played second base, one bullet entered his hip and traveled across his body, tearing apart muscle and bone and causing so much blood loss that doctors would later describe Scalise as being at "imminent risk of death" when he arrived in their care.
Several surgeries, at least one serious infection and weeks of grueling inpatient recovery followed, prompting frequent speculation in the hallways of the Capitol about when — or perhaps if — Scalise would return to the demanding job of chief GOP vote-counter.
But Scalise, though visibly thinner and hobbling on a pair of crutches, entered the House chamber on his feet Thursday, made his way to his usual place at the Republican desk, and spoke with no apparent weakness for more than 15 minutes.
He then cast his first vote since June — in favor of a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and extend tax benefits to hurricane victims.
"For what purpose does the gentleman from Louisiana seek recognition?" asked a visibly emotional House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) from the rostrum.
"To speak out of order, Mr. Speaker," said Scalise, prompting another roar of applause.
The chamber was rife with emotional displays. Scalise made it three steps into the chamber before Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) delivered a bear hug. Democrats waved and whooped at Scalise from across the chamber. Faces throughout the room tightened to stifle tears as Scalise thanked God, family, friends, colleagues, doctors and the law enforcement officers who ultimately killed the shooter before he could do more harm.
"I'm not a big crier," Ryan told reporters later, recalling a private meeting with Scalise earlier in the day. "But I just was a babbling idiot. I just could not compose myself."
Scalise sat alongside other GOP leaders — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) — but also next to a close Democratic friend, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, a fellow Louisianian who was among the first lawmakers to arrive at the hospital after the shooting.
Scalise made his way through the House halls in a scooter emblazoned with the Louisiana State University logo — then got back on his feet to cross National Statuary Hall, greeting tourists and reporters on his way to his office. Trump later tweeted video of Scalise's remarks and welcomed him back to work.
Hodgkinson opened fire during the GOP's early-morning practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, shooting four people. He was pronounced dead at a hospital after a gun battle with police.
On the House floor Thursday, Scalise reflected on prayers that were answered and messages of support he had received from world leaders he had never met.
"While some people might focus on a tragic event and an evil act, to me, all I remember are the thousands of acts of kindness and love and warmth that came out of this," he said.
He gave special recognition to the two Capitol Police officers serving on his security detail, David Bailey and Crystal Griner, who were at the Alexandria ballpark and fired shots that are credited with preventing Hodgkinson from harming more people.
"You are my hero," Scalise told Bailey, who sat in the House gallery next to Scalise's wife, Jennifer. "You saved my life."
Scalise's return was particularly emotional for a few dozen Republicans who had been there on the field 3½ months ago, dodging bullets and diving to the ground, then trying to help the wounded before the ambulances arrived.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was present at the baseball practice and among the first people to reach Scalise after he was shot, joined several senators who rushed across the Capitol to watch his return.
Rep. Charles J. "Chuck" Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), who injured himself when diving into the dugout to escape the shooter, reflected afterward on how the happy drudgery of an early-morning practice gave way to an act of shocking violence.
"It's still hard sometimes for me to get my head around the fact that a field that we played at for seven years without incident — I mean, not even a protest — that that happened," Fleischmann said. "But I'm just infinitely thankful that all of the people involved are making a full recovery."
Scalise used his speech to highlight the lifesaving work of one of the unheralded players in the shooting incident: Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a backbench lawmaker in his fifth year in office — and a former combat surgeon with a Bronze Star from his Army tours in Iraq.
Wenstrup rushed to Scalise's side on June 14, applying tourniquets to keep blood loss down until he could be flown to a trauma center. As Scalise led a standing ovation for Wenstrup, the Ohio Republican darted across the floor and into his friend's arms, both lawmakers near tears.
The type of pelvic wound suffered by Scalise is considered extremely dangerous, doctors say, because that area of the body is crowded with organs and blood vessels. It is home to the iliac blood vessels, which include major arteries branching off from the aorta.
Scalise underwent several surgeries at MedStar Washington Hospital Center to repair his injuries and, at one point, suffered a setback because of an infection that required additional surgery. He was discharged in late July to begin what doctors called "intensive inpatient rehabilitation" at the adjacent National Rehabilitation Hospital.
Scalise praised his medical team Thursday: "They gave me a second chance at life."
MedStar said in a statement that they watched "with great joy" as Scalise returned to work. "For the past few months, our teams have been in awe of Rep. Scalise and his intense commitment to returning to his family, home and his important work on Capitol Hill," the statement said.
A spokesman for Scalise said the congressman "will be resuming his work at the Capitol, while also completing an extended period of outpatient rehabilitation over the coming months."
Scalise's appearance Thursday came with only minutes' notice for all but a tight circle of top leaders and aides. But there were signs that Scalise was preparing his comeback: On Wednesday, CBS News teased a coming "60 Minutes" interview, airing Sunday, Scalise's first media appearance since the shooting.
"My femur was shattered," he told correspondent Norah O'Donnell, according to excerpts of the interview released Thursday by CBS News. "The hip and pelvis had serious damage where the bullet went through and, you know, did some damage to areas that had to be shored up with steel plates. And then they did a phenomenal job of rebuilding — you know . . . rebuilding Humpty Dumpty."
"They put you back together again," O'Donnell said.
"They put me back together again," Scalise replied.
Lindsey Beaver and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
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