WASHINGTON – Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' chair sits empty as she recovers from a gunshot wound to the head, yet three friends are ensuring she still has a presence in Congress.
At nearly every hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, carves out a few precious minutes from his time-limited turn quizzing military officials to ask a question on behalf of Giffords.
"She's a critical member of the committee — has been for the four years that she's been here," Smith said in a recent interview, just days after visiting Giffords at a Houston hospital. He confers with the Arizona Democrat's staff on questions that Giffords might ask about energy or the two major military installations in her district, the Army's Fort Huachuca and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
"I want to make sure her initiatives get in there," he said.
This Tuesday night, Smith will join Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in hosting a fundraiser for Giffords' 2012 campaign at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters building a few blocks from the Capitol. Members of the Democratic leadership also are pitching in.
"I've been protecting her flank politically," said Wasserman Schultz, who is intent on making sure Giffords has a hefty account for her next election.
While Giffords will need months of rehabilitation from her traumatic brain injury, her three friends are filling in the gaps of the three-term congresswoman's daily work, striving to keep her politically viable during her extended absence from Washington.
When she will be well enough to return to work remains unclear. In the latest update, Giffords' doctors said Friday that her ability to walk and talk has improved and they had removed her breathing tube. They hope to reattach a piece of her skull in May.
Tragedy, a debilitating illness, advancing age — all have been sobering realities in Congress, but the demands on a lawmaker and staff continue unabated.
In December 2006, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., suffered a brain hemorrhage and had surgery. His aides worked on his issues until his return in September 2007. The same was true for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., as he battled a brain tumor until his death in 2009. His friend, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., stepped into his committee chairmanship while Kennedy was ailing.
Giffords' staff of around 18 people in Arizona and Washington press ahead despite calamitous losses in their ranks. The Jan. 8 shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., killed six people, including aide Gabe Zimmerman. Thirteen people were injured, including Giffords' district director Ron Barber, who was seriously wounded.
In the weeks since the shooting, Giffords' aides helped a constituent escape from the protests convulsing Cairo and assisted a woman facing foreclosure on property her family had owned for more than 70 years. C.J. Karamargin, Giffords' press secretary, said there was a spike in the number of requests after the shooting, perhaps because Giffords had filled the headlines.
For Smith, Wasserman Schultz and Gillibrand, stepping up for Giffords is both business and personal.
After the shooting, Giffords' husband, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, reached out to the three, colleagues and friends who have stayed in close contact with her staff the last two months.
"When you are member of Congress, you have a set of responsibilities that you're trying to meet," Smith said. "You have a district to represent. You have the committees that you serve on. You got caucus relationships to work. And you're up every two years, which means you have to have a political operation as well in order to be prepared for what comes in two years.
"We want to make sure that when she comes back to work, that operation I just described ... is up and running and is as strong as it can be under the circumstances," he said.
After the November elections, when House Democrats chose committee members from their decimated ranks, the gregarious Giffords was the chief advocate for the studious Smith to fill the Armed Services Committee slot. They have worked closely on the panel since Giffords' election in 2006.
In a few weeks, Smith will hold a town-hall meeting with Giffords' staff in Tucson, part of a trip that had been in the works before the shooting.
He visited Giffords at the Houston hospital on March 4, his third trip since the shooting.
"She's getting better every time. It's all a matter of reconnecting, relearning," he said.
Wasserman Schultz, who has worked to get House Democrats re-elected, made sure Giffords was among the top 15 in the party's program to assist vulnerable incumbents. Giffords won re-election in 2010 by just 4,156 votes in a swing district. At the end of 2010, she was on good footing financially with $285,501 in her campaign account.
Wasserman Schultz recalled her own health crisis — breast cancer at age 40 — and the importance of girlfriends. For Giffords, "I want to be there as a girlfriend," said the four-term Florida lawmaker.
Wasserman Schultz visited Giffords on March 5, four weeks after her last trip, and said she was amazed at the progress. She said Giffords is very responsive and talking, though "not conversationalist."
Gillibrand, a former House member elected in the same year as Giffords, was at her bedside when she opened her eyes for the first time days after the shooting.
In a letter accompanying the invitation for the Giffords for Congress fundraiser, Gillibrand, Smith and Wasserman Schultz wrote, "We look forward to seeing her again soon and to the day that she will rejoin us in the halls of Congress."
On March 4, several members of Giffords' staff made a special hospital trip to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The facility focuses on traumatic brain injuries of service members, especially those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The physicians provided insights for Giffords' aides.
"This is one of the top-line treatment centers in the world," Karamargin said. "We are learning way more than we ever wanted to about this particular aspect of health care."