The House of Representatives said farewell to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) on Wednesday morning with a moving tribute on her last day as a member of Congress.
“None of us on this floor are talented enough to summon the rhetoric that all of us feel in our hearts,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “Gabby, we love you. We have missed you.”
The tribute marked the end of a wrenching year during which it was unclear whether Giffords would return to Congress after being attacked in a shooting that killed six others, including her staffer Gabe Zimmerman.
Giffords said she would leave office this week to focus on recuperating, a decision members accepted reluctantly, even as they prayed for her return.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a close friend who escorted Giffords onto the floor, was in tears in the well as she stood next to Giffords and spoke on her behalf.
“Knowing her as well as I do, the one thing that has not been said is that Gabby wants her constituents to know — her constituents that she loves so much in southern Arizona — that it has been the greatest professional privilege of her life to represent them, that she loves them as a fifth-generation Arizonian, that her public service has meant a great deal to her, and that this is only a pause in that service, and that she will return one day to public service,” Wasserman Schultz said.
“No matter what we argue about here on this floor or in this country, there is nothing more important than family and friendship,” she added, before tearing up and telling Giffords: “Even though I know we won’t see each other every day, Gabby, we will be friends for life — for life.”
From the House floor, Wasserman Schultz read Giffords’s resignation, which Giffords then presented to a teary-eyed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to a thunderous standing ovation.
Members of the House have said for the last year that Giffords’s shooting and miraculous recovery should prompt Congress to focus more on working together, and Giffords’s own resignation letter spoke to that goal.
“Never did I question the character of those with whom I disagree,” she wrote in her letter. “Never did I let pass an opportunity to join hands with someone just because he or she held different ideals.”
Giffords also wrote that while she tried all year to return to the House as a working member, she recognized that she needs to focus on her recovery.
“From my first steps and first words after being shot to my current physical and speech therapy, I’ve given all of myself to being able to walk back onto the House floor this year to be able to represent Arizona’s 8th congressional district,” she wrote. “However, today I know that now is not the time. I have more work to do on my recovery before I can again serve in elected office.
“If I can’t return, my district deserves to elect a U.S. representative who can give 100 percent to the job now.”
One of Giffords’s last acts was to attend President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening, where she received a standing ovation upon entering the chamber. Obama stopped on his way to the podium to give her a long hug.
In the tributes Wednesday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recognized Giffords’s mother, Gloria, who sat in the chamber and waved as her daughter blew her kisses. Pelosi said Giffords’s ability to survive the horrific shooting was an act of courage and determination that has inspired people around the country.
“All of us come to the floor today, colleagues of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, to salute her as the brightest star among us, the brightest star Congress has ever seen,” Pelosi said. “She has brought the word ‘dignity’ to new heights by her courage.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wished her farewell, and like Giffords herself, predicted that she would return to public service.
“Though Gabby may be leaving Washington today, I know this won’t be the last we see of her and Mark,” Cantor said, referring to Giffords’s husband, retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, who sat near Giffords’s mother in the gallery. Kelly sat in the first lady’s box at Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
The House sent Giffords off with one final “thank you,” a unanimous vote in favor of her bill, H.R. 3801, which would stiffen penalties against ultra-light aircraft that smuggle drugs into the United States. The House approved her bill on a 408-0 vote.
Earlier in the morning, members said the bill, Giffords’s last, showed her continuing concern for her constituents.
“She is concerned about her constituents and cares [about] and loves this country deeply,” said Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).
Rep. Sandy Levin (R-Mich.) added: “Gabby Giffords has been a spectacular star in the congressional galaxy, and we say as friends with love and affection, we know that her star will continue to shine brightly and it will inspire us all.”
— This story was posted at 10:55 a.m. and has been updated.