Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been in Congress as a freshman, part of the wave of Democrats who captured the majority, listening in 2007 to President Bush’s State of the Union address defending his surge in Iraq. Then again in 2009, when newly minted President Obama gave Democrats marching orders that resulted in the stimulus and universal health care becoming law.
But it was the speech she missed last year when her presence was felt most — and has given her a chance at a lasting legacy.
As she lay in a hospital bed in Tucson, Ariz., recovering from a gunshot to the head suffered during an outdoor town-hall meeting two weeks earlier, her colleagues left a chair empty for her, flanked by a Republican and a Democrat.
Across the House chamber, other lawmakers were crossing the center aisle that had always divided the two parties. Sitting next to each other, they said, was a tribute to the woman they all knew as “Gabby” — and, they hoped, a sign that politics could be civil, even if it couldn’t be agreeable.
On Tuesday, Ms. Giffords returned to the chamber, taking her place in that seat between Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican, and Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, a liberal Democrat. Hundreds of colleagues did likewise, continuing a tribute they began last year.
The entire chamber greeted her arrival, through a back door in the House chamber, with pure joy.
Dressed in a salmon-colored suit, she accepted a bag of M&Ms from Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, a kiss from Vice President Joe Biden, and a hug from Mr. Obama. She rested her head on his shoulder as they spoke in soft tones.
“She wants to, I think, put some closure on her service,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat, said Monday. She is a friend of Ms. Giffords and escorted her into the chamber Tuesday.
“It’s incredibly meaningful for her,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz said. “It’s really symbolic, given last year we left that seat empty for her.”
In another tribute to another missing member, Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, kept a seat open for Sen. Mark Kirk, the Illinois Republican who suffered a stroke over the weekend.
It was Ms. Giffords‘ last State of the Union as a congresswoman. On Sunday, she said she is stepping down from the House to focus on her recovery.
“I don’t remember much from that horrible day. But I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice. Thank you for your prayers and for giving me time to recover,” she said. “I have more work to do on my recovery. So to do what is best for Arizona. I will step down this week. I’m getting better. Every day my spirit is high. I will return and we will work together for Arizona and this great country.”
She leaves Congress with a solid legislative record for a third-term member — she passed several border security bills through the House, and a solar energy bill she wrote was partially incorporated into a big energy package that eventually became law.
One of those border bills, to combat ultralight aircraft now favored by smugglers, will be on the House floor again Wednesday, co-sponsored by Mr. Flake. Ms. Giffords’s vote on that likely will be her last act as a congresswoman.
But Ms. Giffords has a chance at having much greater impact on the country than her legislation.