Image: Gabrielle Giffords
AP
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., center, appears on the floor of the House of Representatives Monday, Aug. 1, 2011.
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updated 8/2/2011 11:06:34 AM ET 2011-08-02T15:06:34

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.

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"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."

Slideshow: Former Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (on this page)

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.

Video: Rep. Giffords returns to House for debt vote (on this page)

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."

Video: Giffords returns to D.C. for debt vote (on this page)

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."

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

Video: Giffords constituents react to her return

  1. Transcript of: Giffords constituents react to her return

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Finally tonight, back on January 8th we arrived in Tucson , Arizona , to find a community in shock after a shooting. They were mourning the dead, caring for the wounded, and many didn't think their congresswoman was going to make it. Boy, did she ever make it. Gabby Giffords has fought to come back, and that fight brought her to the House floor last night to thunderous applause. And all we could think of was the resilient community of Tucson , Arizona ; where, as NBC 's Lee Cowan reports, they were cheering her on every step of the way.

    LEE COWAN reporting: It was once considered wishful thinking that this day would come. That it came so early was to some miraculous, but that's a word that's become synonymous with Congresswoman Gabby Giffords .

    Representative NANCY PELOSI: Thank you, Gabby , for joining us.

    COWAN: It's been seven short months since an assassin's bullet tore through her head, and her district hasn't had a voice since.

    Unidentified Man #1: Congresswoman Giffords ' office.

    COWAN: And for her staff -- like Ron Barber , who was shot twice that day -- last night was astounding for a whole other reason.

    Mr. RON BARBER: She's an inspiration to the country, and at least for a brief second we can come together with that kind of spirit.

    COWAN: At the scene of the shooting, most agreed that Gabby 's quiet determination said more about the good kind of politics than all the debt ceiling speeches combined.

    Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, I cried. Yeah, sure. Because she's a rock, you know?

    Ms. LOUISE BROCKWAY (Tucson Resident): I think she epitomizes getting along in the political world. And so it was a perfect environment for her to do that.

    COWAN: At the Tucson hospital, once buried in a sea of candles and flowers, doctors never doubted her resolve. But they, too, were shocked.

    Dr. RAINER GRUESSNER (Chief of Surgery, University Medical Center): At the end there is light at the tunnel, and yesterday we saw the light.

    COWAN: Even her high school history teacher watched her return, looking so different and yet to him, so very much the same.

    Mr. JOHN HOSMER (Giffords' High School Teacher): Oh, that was so emotional. I mean, you know, just standing there thinking, ' Good for you , Gabby .'

    COWAN: No one here has forgotten the six people who were killed or the 12 other people who were wounded, but it's what Gabby Giffords inspired in those people that Tucson wants to be remembered for, not the crime itself. Sometimes a wave is just a wave. But on this night, it was a gesture that moved the world. Lee Cowan, NBC News, Tucson .

Photos: Former Ariz. Representative Gabrielle Giffords

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  1. Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot and left handicapped after a gunman opened fire at an event in Tucson, Ariz., and her husband retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly prepare to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 2013. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, leave the Newtown Municipal Building in Newtown, Conn. on Jan. 4, 2013. Giffords met with Newtown officials on Friday afternoon before heading to visit with families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. (Michelle Mcloughlin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Gabrielle Giffords waves to the Space Shuttle Endeavor with her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly as it flies over Tucson, Ariz. on its way to Los Angeles, on Sept. 20, 2012. Kelly served as Endeavour's last space commander months after Giffords survived serious head injuries because of a 2011 shooting. (P.K. Weis / Southwest Photo Bank via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Gabrielle Giffords blows a kiss after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. on Sept. 6, 2012. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Gabrielle Giffords stands on top of a peak in the French Alps with her husband Mark Kelly, right,, and mountain guide Vincent Lameyre, July 23, 2012. On her first trip out of the country since her injury in 2011, she rode a two-stage cable car to a station for spectacular views of Mont Blanc. (Denis Balibouse / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ron Barber, right, celebrates his victory with Giffords, left, prior to speaking to supporters at a post election event, Tuesday, June 12, 2012, in Tucson, Ariz. Barber, Giffords' former district director, won her seat in a special election after she resigned to focus on her recovery. (Ross D. Franklin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Democratic Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, read Rep. Gabriell Giffords resignation speech on the House floor on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. The day after President Obama's State of the Union speech, Giffords formally offered her resignation to Speaker John Boehner. Weeping, Shultz applauded the strength of her friend and colleague, "I'm so proud of my friend." (MSNBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. President Barack Obama hugs retiring Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as the president arrives to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., left, and Pelosi, right, posing with Giffords husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly of the Navy, at his retirement ceremony with Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (House Leader Nancy Pelosi's office / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returns to the House for the first time since she was shot, making a dramatic entrance on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, during a crucial debt vote. She drew loud applause and cheers from surprised colleagues. (NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords poses for a photo the day after the launch of NASA space shuttle Endeavour and the day before she had her cranioplasty surgery, outside TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital May 17, in Houston, Texas. Aides of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords posted two recent photos of the congresswoman to her public Facebook page, the first since the January 8 shooting that killed six people and wounded a dozen others. (P.K. Weis / Giffords Campaign / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Emergency workers use a stretcher to move Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In this Jan. 5, 2011 file photo, House Speaker John Boehner re-enacts the swearing in of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Susan Walsh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Rep. Giffords, left, speaks during a candidates debate with Republican candidate Jesse Kelly at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 18, 2010. Kelly is an Iraq War veteran and was the Tea Party favorite for the 8th congressional district seat. (Joshua Lott / The New York Times via Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords meets with constituents in Douglas, Ariz., in 2010. Giffords, 40, took office in January 2007, emphasizing issues such as immigration reform, embryonic stem-cell research, alternative energy sources and a higher minimum wage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rep. Giffords speaks during a press conference in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress called on the President to secure the border with the National Guard on April 28, 2010. (James Berglie / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. This picture provided by the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Monday, March 22, 2010, shows damage to her office in Tucson, Ariz. The congressional office was vandalized a few hours after the House vote overhauling the nation's health care system. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., center, gives a tour of Statuary Hall in the Capitol to Shuttle Discovery STS-124 astronauts Mission Specialist Akihiko Hoshide, of Japan, and her husband, Commander Mark Kelly, on Thursday, July 17, 2008. (Bill Clark / Roll Call Photos) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. From right. Rep. Ken Calvert, Rep. Dennis Moore, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and Rep. Heath Shuler, attend a House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security hearing on current and proposed employment eligibility verification systems on May 6, 2008. The hearing provided a forum for lawmakers on both sides of the immigration debate, focusing on a system to verify the legal status of workers and job applicants. (Scott J. Ferrell) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Gabrielle Giffords with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Kelly, a NASA astronaut, at their wedding in Amado, Ariz., on Nov. 10, 2007. Kelly's twin brother, also an astronaut, is a commander on the International Space Station. "We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station. As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not," said Scott Kelly of the tragedy that befell his sister-in-law. (Norma Jean Gargasz for The New York Times / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Representatives-elect including Dean Heller, top right, and Gabrielle Giffords, next to Heller, prepare for the freshman class picture for the 110th Congress on the House Steps on Nov. 14, 2006. (Tom Williams / Roll Call Photos) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords rides horseback in 2006. In an interview with NPR last year, she recalled working with horses during her adolescence in Tucson. "I loved cleaning out the stalls, and I did that in exchange for riding lessons. And I continue to ride most of my life. And I learned a lot from horses and the stable people ... I think it provided good training, all of that manure-shoveling, for my days in politics ahead." (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A page entitled, "Just do it!" in La Semeuse, the Scripps College yearbook in 1993. The photo at right shows Giffords in traditional Mennonite clothing. That same year, she won a Fulbright award to study Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups in Northern Mexico. Gifford's senior thesis was titled "Wish Books and Felt-Tipped Fantasies: The Sociology of Old Colony Mennonite Drawings." (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Gabrielle Giffords' senior portrait from the 1993 Scripps College yearbook. Giffords double-majored in Latin American studies and sociology. A Dean's List student, Gifford won several awards during her time at Scripps. (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Gabrielle Giffords, right, laughs with her mom, Gloria Kay Fraser Giffords, in a photo published in the Scripps College yearbook. Gabrielle received a B.A. in Sociology and Latin American history from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. in 1993. (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. University High School portrait of Gabrielle Giffords, class of 1988. Dr. John Hosmer, taught history to the future lawmaker. He tells msnbc.com, "Gabrielle sat in the front row. She was inquisitive ... She was a very mature person from the moment she walked in the door." (University High School) Back to slideshow navigation
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