Posted Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, at 7:40 PM
The debt compromise sailed through the House of Representatives in one of the most emotional votes in recent memory. It had nothing to do with the deal. Halfway through the vote, when it was about to pass, Nancy Pelosi walked to one of the entrances to the floor, waved, and beckoned in a woman and a guard. Members craned their necks to confirm what they were seeing. It was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., making her first appearance in the Capitol since an unsuccessful assassination attempt in January.
The vote total surged as members surged towards Giffords. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., got to Giffords in the mob and gave her a hug. "Great to be here!" she told him. Giffords had survived and recovered from a shot to the head, but from the gallery reporters could see her waving, hugging, and slapping the backs of members, exchanging brief words.
The votes rolled in almost as an afterthought. When Giffords entered the room, the bill had attracted 213 "ayes," just coming up to the line of passage. Dozens of members turned their heads up at the vote tally projected on the wall of the press gallery, and cheered when a green "Y" went up next to Giffords's name -- her first vote since the shooting.
When the gavel came down, the deal got 269 aye votes and 161 noes. Ninety-five Democrats and 66 Republicans opposed the bill, while 95 Democrats and 174 Republicans supported it. The "no" votes cut wildly across ideological lines, with liberals joining Tea Party members joining conservative Democrats, all of them pretty confident that their votes were symbolic. Half of Democrats agreed to a deal that they believed would hold down employment. A majority of Republicans broke pledges not to raise the debt limit or to hold out for a balanced budget amendment. The joy of the moment overcame all of the implications of this. Politics, briefly, didn't seem too relevent.
As I walked out of the vote, I ran into Rep. David Wu, D-Ore. This was the end of his political career. He'll resign shortly, having promised to leave the House after the debt crisis was resolved. Like every other member he'd been in the dark about Giffords.
"It's a great business, and this --" he pointed back at the floor -- "is the way to do it. I tell you what. It's a lot better than China." I chuckled at that. "I'm serious!" he said. "I remember; I have firsthand experience."
Wu walked out of the Capitol, hundreds of cameras pointed, blessedly, somewhere else.