WASHINGTON – The applause rolled through the big chamber, growing ever louder as hundreds of Republicans and Democrats suddenly realized Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was back in the House. But this time she had come to say goodbye.
Fellow lawmakers gave her a fitting send-off: cheers, hugs, a cascade of tributes and plenty of tears in a rare moment of political unity.
A year since that fateful Saturday morning when Giffords was severely wounded during a shooting rampage in her home district, the Arizona congresswoman resigned on Wednesday with a plea for civility — and a hint that she'll be back on the national stage. For now, the 41-year-old said, her movements and speech still halting, she needs to focus on her recovery.
For all the kind words showered on her, Giffords reflected in her resignation letter about a level of respect that seems like an aberration these days in a bitterly divided Washington.
In her five years in Congress, she said, "Always I fought for what I thought was right. But never did I question the character of those with whom I disagreed. Never did I let pass an opportunity to join hands with someone just because he or she held different ideals."
Said Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas in the first of many tributes: "Gabby is the spirit of bipartisanship that we should all learn from."
Giffords' friend Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., became emotional before reading Giffords' resignation letter in the well of the House. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., held Giffords' hand. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, cried after Giffords slowly made her way to the podium and handed him the envelope with her resignation letter.
Last January, a gunman opened fire at Giffords' "Congress on Your Corner" event in Tucson, killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge and wounding 13, including Giffords who suffered a gunshot wound to her head. She has spent the past year recovering, showing up in the House just once last August to vote on raising the nation's borrowing authority.
That appearance stirred speculation about her political future and whether she would seek another term or even pursue an open Senate seat.
Giffords put that talk to rest on Sunday, announcing in a Web video that she would resign this week. On Monday, she met with survivors of the shootings in Arizona, , finishing the event that she had started outside a supermarket. On Tuesday night, she received thunderous applause and a hug from President Barack Obama at his State of the Union address.
Colleagues and friends stood with her, Flake by her side. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had her back.
On Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats turned a morning debate over Giffords' last bill into a forum to praise her work and perseverance.
"We haven't seen the last of Gabby Giffords," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. "I believe ... whatever the future holds for her she has made this a better place."
Around 10 a.m., Giffords entered the chamber through the main door, the same one Obama used the previous night. Wasserman Schultz assisted her as she made her way down the aisle, greeted warmly by colleagues with kisses and hugs. She sat in the front row for a flurry of tributes. In the gallery sat her mother, Gloria, and husband, retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, the former astronaut.
"All of us come to the floor today ... to salute her as the brightest star among us, the brightest star Congress has ever seen," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he received a call from Kelly on Sunday informing him of Giffords' plans to resign. He said Giffords' "strength against all odds serves and will continue to serve as a daily inspiration to all of us."
Said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., "The House of Representative has been made proud by this extraordinary daughter of the House. Gabby, we love you, we have missed you."
Prolonged standing ovations and spontaneous whoops marked the tributes. Giffords briefly waved at Kelly and her mother when their names were mentioned.
Surrounded by colleagues and friends, Giffords stood in the well of the chamber to resign. Wasserman Schultz read her two-page letter to Boehner.
"Everyday, I am working hard," Giffords wrote. "I will recover and will return, and we will work together again, for Arizona and for all Americans."
She purposefully made it to the podium to deliver the letter to Boehner.
Moments later, the House, including Giffords, voted for her final piece of legislation — a bill that would impose tougher penalties on smugglers who use small, low-flying aircraft to avoid radar detection and bring drugs across the Mexican border.
The vote was 408-0. The Senate, which recently passed a version of the bill, is expected to vote Thursday on the measure and send it to Obama for his signature.
Giffords submitted resignation letters to both Boehner and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. It falls to Brewer to set a date for a special primary and general election to fill the Arizona seat. That will probably happen in the spring or early summer. In November, voters will choose someone for the full two-year term.
After the tribute, Kelly said his wife realized stepping down was the right thing to do.
"But I'm more optimistic than anybody else about her future. She just needs some more time, whether it's a year or two years or three years, I'm very confident she's going to have a long and effective career as a public servant," he said.
Asked about her daughter's future, Gloria Giffords said, "I kind of think she's transcended Congress. I don't know where she's going to end up."
"She's remembered every boy she's ever kissed, every song she's ever sang, every bill she's ever passed," she said. "So upward and onward."
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Jim Abrams contributed to this report.