Only six steps separate the top of the rostrum in the House of Representatives' chamber where the Speaker presides over Congressional proceedings and the hollowed-out cavity below where rank-and-file lawmakers verbally spar over the nation's business.
In fact, the wood-paneled dais is divided into three levels. The lowest tier is just a single step up from the floor and where the House's floor operations staff toils. Go up another two steps to the second level and you're where the House Reading Clerk elocutes bills and other communications to the membership. One must scale three additional steps to peak at the rostrum's highest point. That's where's House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) or others wield the gavel, make proclamations and control the ebb and flow of House debate.
In her video released on Sunday, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) declared she would "step down this week."
But to step down, Giffords stepped up.
And then up two more steps.
And then up three.
To the top of the dais, where she personally handed John Boehner her letter of resignation in one of her final acts as a Member of Congress.
Giffords made her first step toward recovery months ago. But her ascension up the six steps on the House rostrum could prove to be her most important steps yet in her recovery process.
Few could have imagined a scenario where Giffords ventured to the top of the dais a little more than a year ago when Dr. Peter Rhee of University Medical Center in Tucson announced that a bullet pierced Giffords' skull "through and through."
But it's simple steps like the ones Giffords took on the House rostrum Wednesday which are emblematic of her recovery. And her deliberate, wobbly climb to the Speaker's stratum also revealed that despite stunning progress, Giffords still has a long way to go.
Giffords knows this personal climb is more than just six steps on the dais. That's one of the reasons she announced her resignation.
"I have more work to do on my recovery," Giffords said in the video.
But in her resignation letter, Giffords offered a promise.
"I will recover and will return," Giffords wrote.
On Tuesday night, both houses of Congress, most of the cabinet, five Supreme Court justices, seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 160 ambassadors massed in the House chamber for President Obama to deliver his State of the Union message. The center door at the rear of the chamber swung open and newly-minted House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving announced Mr. Obama's presence.
"Mr. Speaker! The President of the United States!" bellowed Irving.
A little more than 13 hours later, those same center doors again flew open as the House was engaged in a roll call vote. There were no senators, no cabinet members, no Supreme Court justices, military leaders nor diplomats on hand. Irving did not stride down the center aisle to proclaim the arrival of the government's most-distinguished guest.
That's because the person entering the chamber was not a guest. She was a duly elected and sworn member of the House.
But the House met the arrival of that lawmaker with nearly as much anticipation as President Obama who moved through that same threshold the night before.
Giffords stepped gingerly onto the House floor at 10:13 am. A few members spotted her and began to clap. And then the din swelled. The chamber erupted into a spontaneous standing ovation, punctuated by whoops and hollers.
Gabrielle Giffords was in the House.
And not unlike Mr. Obama's triumphant entrance into the chamber Tuesday, those who happened to sit on the aisle converged on Giffords to shake her hand or give her a hug. First there was Rep. John Barrow (D-GA). Then Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA). A kiss for Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA).
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) held Giffords' hand as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) trailed behind. Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-AZ), who befriended Giffords when they both served in the state legislature, helped Giffords with her labored gait. Giffords' Chief of Staff Pia Carusone guided the Congresswoman's arm through the crowd as they moved toward the well of the chamber.
Giffords sat in the front row of the House, flanked by Wasserman Schultz and Schweikert. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) joined them in front and dabbed her eyes with crumpled up tissue. Giffords clutched Schweikert's hand as Boehner recognized Pelosi to speak.
"All of us come to the floor today to salute Gabby Giffords - as the brightest star among us, the brightest star Congress has ever seen," Pelosi said.
Lawmakers sat in rapt attention listening to Pelosi's tribute as well as a commendation from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Giffords' husband Mark Kelly waited in the public gallery above, slumped slightly to his left. Kelly held his middle finger across the bridge of his nose, nearly at eye level, as though he was trying to hide tears. Kelly pressed his index finger against the side of his face, inducing a series of ripples in the skin near his temple.
Giffords sat a few rows in front of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) when he spoke. She squirmed around backwards in her chair so she could see Hoyer.
"The House of Representatives of America has been made proud by this extraordinary daughter, who served so well during her tenure here," said Hoyer. "Gabby, we love you. We have missed you."
"I missed you!" Giffords exclaimed in a small voice, which drew laughter and applause.
A few minutes later, it was time for Wasserman Schultz to read Giffords' resignation letter. Arizona's entire delegation as well as members of Giffords' class of 2006 joined them.
"I couldn't prepare anything this morning because I knew I wouldn't be able to hold it together for very long," Wasserman Schultz began, choking back tears.
Once Wasserman Schultz concluded reading Giffords' resignation missive, the Arizona Democrat began her journey up the dais to present it to an awaiting Boehner. Wasserman Schultz and Carusone steadied Giffords as she made the first step onto the first level of the rostrum. She took each step one at a time, leading with her left, slowly bringing her right leg along as she climbed. House Parliamentarian John Sullivan greeted Giffords at the second platform. And then Giffords gingerly scaled three more steps before reaching Boehner at his vantage point at the top.
The Congresswoman struggled slightly with the final step, finally making it on the second try. Boehner took Giffords by both shoulders and Wasserman Schultz anchored her, putting both hands around her waist. Boehner greeted Giffords with an air kiss on her right cheek. And then Giffords presented Boehner with a large beige envelope. It was an official Congressional envelope, complete with Giffords' signature for franking privileges emblazoned in the upper right-hand corner.
The speaker accepted the envelope with both hands as though receiving a fragile piece of porcelain. Then Giffords and Boehner clasped hands at shoulder level and turned toward crowd as the cheers grew. Boehner's lower jaw trembled as he tried to fight back tears.
It's cliché to say there wasn't a dry eye in the room.
But it's also accurate.
When President Obama delivered his speech Tuesday night, he spoke from the second level of the rostrum with Boehner and Vice President Biden posted above him. That's because the president is a guest of the Congress and Boehner and Biden (in his role as President of the Senate) are in charge.
But in her climb Wednesday, Giffords made it to a level higher than the president had the night before.
Schweikert said he was overcome by a "rush of feelings" when he watched his Arizona colleague make it up the rostrum.
"She ascended to a very high office at a young age. She suffered an amazing tragedy. And she's still ascending," Schweikert said.
The last formal bit of business in the House Wednesday was a vote on Giffords' bill to increase penalties for those who smuggle drugs into the U.S. with ultralight aircraft. Giffords wrote the legislation and introduced it just a few days before she was shot last year. As the clock wound down on Wednesday's vote, some wondered if Giffords would actually cast her ballot. Then an electronic, green "Y" appeared next to Giffords' name on the tallyboard. She had cast her final vote as a Member of the 112th Congress. But Giffords was not the final lawmaker to vote.
"Something tells me Gabby Giffords was never the last at anything," mused a House aide.
The House approved Giffords' bill 408-0, sparking another round of applause.
Giffords then filtered out of the chamber from right where she entered nearly an hour earlier.
The House floor is an organic place. The seats, desks, and paintings don't change. But the chamber morphs and shape shifts, depending on what's the day's agenda. It evolved into a soundstage for President Obama on Tuesday. It was place of bittersweet sadness on Wednesday morning. And after Giffords left, the House chamber quickly metamorphosed into its typical state: a forum for pitched battles between the parties over which direction they wish to lead the country.
The House recognized Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) just seconds after Giffords finally exited. And Foxx immediately turned up the heat on President Obama for failing to approve the construction of the Keystone pipeline.
And despite the dramatic events of the past two days, the House reverted to the partisan arena that the Founders designed it to be.