- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

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.

“Her legacy will be the courage she has shown in recovering from this tragedy,” said former Rep. Jim Kolbe, a moderate Republican whose decision to resign cleared the way for Ms. Giffords‘ first successful 2006 campaign. “The legacy for our part of Arizona will be the way in which the community pulled together and united behind her, united as a family to reject this kind of hate, this kind of violence.”

For Ms. Giffords, civility had been an issue well before the shooting.

Even before she won her seat in Congress, she was part of the inaugural class of the Aspen Institute’s leadership program, designed to foster better sharing and cooperation on ideas among elected officials.

One of her fellow classmates was Jonathan Miller, then the treasurer of Kentucky, who would go on to co-found No Labels, a group that pushes elected officials to move past partisanship and who said Ms. Giffords has become a symbol of “a return to civility and a return to developing relationships.”

“That’s what Gabby’s career is all about,” he said.

His group and Third Way, a progressive-leaning think tank, want to institutionalize the bipartisan State of the Union seating, which Third Way and some lawmakers came up with in the wake of the Tucson shooting.

“There was that very temporary surge [in civility], and it was quickly forgotten it seems,” Mr. Miller said. “But I think in that temporary surge there were a number of efforts that got their germination, including No Labels, that really have picked up a lot of steam and a lot of energy.”

Much depends on what Ms. Giffords‘ colleagues do.

For the speech Tuesday, 200 of them pledged to sit with members of the other party.

Still to be seen is whether her approach to Congress carried over.

Jeff Rogers, chairman of the Democratic Party in Tucson, said Ms. Giffords was one of the last moderates left in Congress, and that matched her southeast Arizona district well.

“I hope it doesn’t mean that there are no more moderates in Congress that can work together, but right now it’s not looking like there are, particularly in the House,” Mr. Rogers said. “Maybe she’s one of the last of an era. I hope that’s not where we are, but we’ll sure find out this fall.”

Tuesday was the second time Ms. Giffords has been on the floor since the shooting attempt on her life.

In August, at the height of the debt-limit debate, Democrats were making House Republicans sweat over whether there would be enough votes to pass the deal Speaker John A. Boehner had struck with Mr. Obama.

But then Ms. Giffords made an electrifying visit to the floor, and amid the applause and tears her Democratic colleagues who had been holding back voted yes, boosting the deal to easy passage. Ms. Giffords voted in favor of the deal.