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Congress: Getting Back to Normal

This is the day Congress starts to move on.

The tragedy in Arizona is long from forgotten. But after a week of mourning, the House of Representatives picks up today where it left off ten days ago. Back before a hail of bullets began ricocheting around an Arizona parking lot.

At a closed door Congressional prayer service last week, House Chaplain Fr. Daniel Coughlin posed a rhetorical question to lawmakers.

"Once the security of one's house has been broken, everyone within feels violated. Fathom questions arise: ‘What next? Where are we most vulnerable? Who's next?'"

It may be natural for the Capitol Hill community to have such inquiries. But in his petition, Coughlin urged Congress to move forward after bereavement.

"Lord God Almighty, do not allow useless anxiety or partisan politics to paralyze the leaders of this government by the people," Coughlin prayed.

And so today, the House is back.

The House dives in to debate legislation to repeal the health care law. House Democrats plan a forum to extol what they believe are the law's virtues. Reps. Steve King (R-IA), Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and others hold news conferences on why they think the law is screwed up. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) conduct regular briefings with the press corps. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) will talk about a trip to Guantanamo Bay. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and other human rights groups plan to discuss China's policies in the wake of Hu Jintao's visit to Washington.

There were questions late last week about how fast lawmakers should return to action. Particularly in with the white hot issue of health care reform standing front and center.

When Democrats ran the House, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) was a major player in crafting the health law, chairing the Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee. Last week, Andrews argued that the rhetoric surrounding the health care issue was "scandalized" and believed a time-out was best before returning to the fray.

"This period is still too sensitive to bring this up," Andrews said of the health care repeal legislation. But Andrews added it was "absolutely legitimate" for the Republican majority to bring the legislation to the floor.

"They were elected on this," Andrews said.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) said it was time to go back work. However, Sherman sided with Andrews when it came to health care reform.

"There are many, bipartisan, ministerial items that could be brought to the floor," Sherman said, specifically calling for a resolution about the election impasse in Ivory Coast.

In many respects, the House doesn't have many other legislative items teed-up for action. Many committees aren't even fully organized and bills are far from ready for floor action.

But last Thursday, Cantor's office indicated lawmakers should gear up for this week.

"As the White House noted, it is important to get back to work," said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring. "To that end, we will resume thoughtful consideration of the health care bill next week."

And most lawmakers from both parties signaled they were prepared for action. Even on health care.

"It's very proper for us to get back to work," said Rep. Ed Pastor (D-AZ), the dean of Arizona's House delegation who managed a resolution honoring Giffords and others on the House floor last week. "We're going to debate and discuss (the health repeal) and do it with civility."

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) sided with Pastor. The former Sheriff of King County, WA, Reichert recalled an episode when he was a 23-year-old officer new to the beat and a baby died in his arms in the back of an ambulance.

"I told my sergeant I need to go home," Reichert said after that tragic incident. "But he told me the best thing to do was to get back in my squad car."

Reichert says it "shows resolve" for lawmakers to get back into the legislative squad car this week.

"Gabrielle would want that," Reichert said.

Rep. Phil Gingery (R-GA) agreed with Reichert.

"People suggest that well, the wind may be taken out of our sails and the game plan has changed. Absolutely not," Gingery said. "If Gabrielle Giffords was with us today, she would be wanting, I'm sure, to defend ‘Obamacare' very strongly."

And health care reform isn't the only issue on the docket. As mentioned earlier, Buck McKeon and several other lawmakers just returned from a weekend trip to Gitmo. Giffords served on the Armed Services panel that McKeon now leads. He says he'll notice Giffords' open seat on the dais when his committee soon holds hearings.

"There's a void there that can't be filled," McKeon said. "It'll be hard. But you suck it up and move forward."

The new Congress launched on January 5. But the first week is often filled with pomp and circumstance. So for many, this is truly the first week of the new Congress. That resonates strongly with freshman lawmakers. Especially those who know Giffords.

"Does the term a punch to the gut mean anything to you?" asked freshman Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-AZ). Schweikert said before the tragedy, Giffords' staff reached out to him to offer assistance in setting up his Congressional office.

Schweikert says that on opening day, he and Giffords were "teasing and bantering back and forth" over the in-state athletic rivalry between the University of Arizona and Arizona State. Giffords represents the University of Arizona. Arizona State is in Schweikert's district.

"We were discussing what we could have as bets," Schweikert said, referring to the time-honored tradition of lawmakers wagering signature fare from their districts when sports teams meet in big games.

"She would have pistachios and I would have citrus during big basketball games and big football games," Schweikert said. "It's the fun, state rivalry."

So the House this week will wrestle with health care. Hu Jintao is expected to pay a visit to the Capitol. Like Republicans last week, Democrats will escape the Beltway for their own retreat this weekend. President Obama journeys to Capitol Hill for his State of the Union message.

The gears of Congress are slowly starting to grind as everyone monitors Giffords' recovery in Arizona. Capitol Hill might not return to normal for quite a while. But there is one sign of normalcy to watch for. Remember those bets Schweikert mentioned? Watch for lawmakers to start placing friendly bets on their teams in the Super Bowl in a few weeks.