WASHINGTON – The total number of votes on the historic debt-limit bill was 430. One vote was more memorable than any of the others.
Seven months after she was shot in the head, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to the House on Monday to cast her vote. Thunderous applause and emotional hugs from her Republican and Democratic colleagues greeted her.
Giffords' entrance, with just minutes remaining in the vote, surprised lawmakers and added even more drama to a high-stakes day. The Arizona Democrat responded to the attention with a smile, blew kisses and mouthed "thank you" several times.
"We were just hugging. Girl hugs," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Other colleagues, surprised and joyful, made their way to greet her as she was enveloped in a cluster of Democratic lawmakers.
Giffords 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 for a third term by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"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."
Giffords cast her vote for the bill, which passed 269-161.
"She is a model for the attitude that we should all have because she is tenacious and she is relentless in her love for America. ... You were missed and we're glad to have you back," said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas.
Giffords' return raised questions about her political future. She has not filed for re-election, but Democrats have fueled speculation about another House bid or even a run for the open Senate seat. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl is retiring. The latest financial reports show the Arizona Democrat with more than $787,000 in the bank at the end of June, thanks to friends and colleagues who have raised money to ensure she has the resources for a campaign.
But Giffords' appearance in Washington was brief Monday night and she returned to Houston for therapy.
"She still has rehabilitation to go through and a lot of recovery. So she's not ready to come back full-time," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a friend of Giffords." But she wanted her district to have its voice here on probably the most important vote we'll cast this Congress."
She 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.
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 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. The man charged in the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, was sent to a federal prison facility in Springfield, Mo., after a federal judge concluded he was mentally incompetent to stand trial on 49 charges.
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.
In true congressional style, Giffords issued a news release after the vote — the only thing typical in an atypical day.
"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 the statement.
"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.
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 minutes before she arrived. Wasserman Schultz said she found out that the congresswoman would cast her vote from a 2 a.m. text message she received from Kelly.
Appearing Tuesday on CBS' "Early Show," Wasserman Schultz said Giffords "went right back to Houston" after the House vote and would be resuming therapy Wednesday.
The vote marked the latest milestone in Giffords' recovery. A month after the shooting, she asked for toast. She has made two trips to Florida to watch her astronaut husband in the shuttle launch. She also underwent surgery to repair of a piece of her skull that had been removed.
Giffords has been undergoing outpatient therapy in Houston since her release from the hospital in June. She made a visit to Tucson for a Father's Day celebration.
In Tucson on Monday, Pam Simon, a Giffords staffer who also survived the shooting, said she and everyone in her office huddled around the TV to watch the congresswoman's return to the floor.
"We were hugging and some of us were in tears and some people were shouting. It was very joyful," Simon said.
"We will be forever tied to that tragic event," she added. "Seeing Gabby there is just a wonderful step for us all."
She said she thought Giffords looked excited yet relaxed.
"Knowing Gabby, I know she is just so happy to be back among her colleagues," she said. "Didn't she look right at home?"
Ron Barber, another Giffords staffer who survived the shooting, said he was in physical therapy for his gunshot wound to the thigh when Giffords voted but that he tuned in when he got back to his Tucson home.
"I have to admit I wept," he said. "All of us who were with her that day are encouraged by her progress."
He said Giffords' decision about whether to run for office still was "down the road."
"People can draw their own conclusions about what they saw today," he said. "But what I saw is that her cognition is 100 percent and that she was concerned about the country and the state of the economy."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a friend of Giffords, said in a statement that she had "tears of joy seeing Gabby on the floor tonight where she belongs."
"Gabby is a fighter and I always knew this day would come. She continues to inspire the nation with her strength and courage," Gillibrand said.
Shortly after her appearance, a tweet appeared on Giffords' Twitter account: "The Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight."
Associated Press writers Charles Babington and Alan Fram in Washington and Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix contributed to this report.