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Gabrielle Giffords appears for debt deal vote (VIDEO)

Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in January, surprised many when she appeared for the historic House vote on the debt deal, Monday.

By DONNA CASSATAAssociated Press / August 2, 2011

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D.) appears on the floor of the House of Representatives Monday, in Washington. Giffords was on the floor for the first time since her shooting earlier this year, attending a vote on the debt ceiling.

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Slowly, with a sense of purpose, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords entered the House chamber Monday night to cast her first vote since she was shot in the head last January, a dramatic return that surprised colleagues. The chamber erupted in loud, sustained applause as Democrats enveloped Giffords with hugs and kisses.

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Only minutes remained on an historic vote on the debt-limit bill. Most lawmakers were staring at the vote board when Giffords made her way through the door on the right side of the chamber. Few knew in advance that she would appear.

Democrats crowded around her as she mouthed "thank-you's." She used one hand to greet some, the other by her side. Her hair was dark and closely cropped, and she wore glasses. Her image was quite different from the one Americans saw seven months ago when she was sworn-in by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

In the House chamber, colleagues, stunned and joyful, made their way to greet Giffords.

"It means so much to our country ... to witness the return of our colleague who is the personification of courage, of sincerity, of admiration throughout the country," Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California told the House.

Her return is "a triumph of the first magnitude and we are all so very proud of her," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.

Giffords cast her vote — "yes" — and left the House chamber and the Capitol.

"I have closely followed the debate over our debt ceiling and have been deeply disappointed at what's going on in Washington," Giffords said in a statement release later.

"I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics. I had to be here for this vote. I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy," she said.

The congressional news release was the only thing typical in a highly atypical moment.

Near the doorway to the House, Vice President Joe Biden greeted Giffords and marveled at her return.

"She's remarkable. Will matters," Biden said in an interview. "She's the embodiment of a strong, strong, strong woman. Think about what that woman's been through, and think about her determination."

On Jan. 8, Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head in the parking lot of a Tucson grocery store while meeting with constituents. Six people were killed and 13 others, including Giffords, were wounded.

As Biden hugged Giffords, Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., joined them.

"Sure, I like Michele Bachmann. We're all standing there and Michele walks up to see Gabby, because she cares about her," Biden said.

Giffords exited the House chamber by the east door, leaning heavily on an aide as she walked with obvious difficulty. Her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, accompanied her. Police had cleared a path through a mob of reporters, and Giffords did not respond to questions and greetings.

Pelosi said Giffords had decided to come for the debt-ceiling vote, something the California congresswoman didn't learn about until Monday morning. The House's No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer, learned about Giffords' return just 30 minute before she arrived.

After Giffords entered the chamber, Pelosi said, "we were just hugging. Girl hugs."

"It was one of the most thrilling moments for all of us to see this real heroine return to the House," Pelosi said, "and to do so at such a dramatic time."

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