At 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, a wave of applause rippled through the House of Representatives.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had begun making her way up the center aisle, clasping the left hand of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) on her right, pausing every now and then to give an embrace or a kiss on the cheek to the dozens of lawmakers who had come to wish her farewell.
By the end of the day, Giffords would no longer be a member of the House.
A year after that fateful day when a gunman opened fire at a Tucson “Congress On Your Corner” event, killing six and wounding 13, including Giffords, the Arizona Democrat had accomplished a goal that has eluded most every lawmaker on Capitol Hill.
She had brought a brief moment of unity to one of the most bitterly partisan and contentious Congresses in modern history.
It was evident in the House’s 408-0 vote Wednesday morning on the last measure authored by Giffords, a bill that would give federal law enforcement greater authority in combating cross-border drug trafficking.
Giffords and a fellow Arizona lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Flake (R), this week introduced the measure, which is a new version of a Giffords bill that overwhelmingly passed the House in 2010 but was not taken up by the Senate.
It was also evident in a first for the House chamber on Wednesday: The morning after sitting in the first lady’s box during President Obama’s State of the Union address, Giffords’s husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was seated with Giffords’s mother in House Speaker John A. Boehner’s (R-Ohio) box on the opposite side of the chamber for the farewell ceremony.
According to House Press Gallery staff, it was the first time ever that a guest had sat one night in the president’s box and the following morning in the box of a speaker of the opposing party.
And the unity was clear in the emotional tributes made by members of both parties to Giffords, her family and staff.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), one of Giffords’s closest friends in Congress, called the lawmaker “the brightest star this Congress has ever seen.”
“She has brought the word ‘dignity’ to new heights,” Pelosi said, as Wasserman Schultz, seated next to Giffords at the front of the Democratic side of the chamber, dabbed at her eyes.
After a host of tributes, Giffords, flanked by about a dozen lawmakers, Wasserman Schultz and Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), made her way to the well of the House. Once there, Wasserman Schultz — who was present when Giffords opened her eyes for the first time after the Tucson shooting — read the congresswoman’s resignation letter aloud.
Giffords, aided by Wasserman Schultz, made her way to the rostrum, where she embraced Boehner and submitted her resignation letter to the speaker. The two clasped their hands and raised them into the air as the entire chamber, already on its feet and applauding, let out a loud cheer.
Might she return to Congress one day?
“Do not underestimate her,” said her Arizona colleague, Schweikert. “I could almost see it in her eyes that this is just a temporary hiatus.”