WASHINGTON — The applause rolled through the big chamber, growing ever louder as hundreds of Republicans and Democrats suddenly realized Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was back in the House.
But this time she had come to say goodbye.
Fellow lawmakers gave her a fitting send-off: cheers, hugs, a cascade of tributes and plenty of tears in a rare moment of political unity.
A year since that fateful Saturday morning when Giffords was severely wounded during a shooting rampage in her home district, the Arizona congresswoman resigned on Wednesday with a plea for civility — and a hint that she'll be back on the national stage. For now, the 41-year-old said, her movements and speech still halting, she needs to focus on her recovery.
For all the kind words showered on her, Giffords reflected in her resignation letter about a level of respect that seems like an aberration these days in a bitterly divided Washington.
In her five years in Congress, she said, "Always I fought for what I thought was right. But never did I question the character of those with whom I disagreed. Never did I let pass an opportunity to join hands with someone just because he or she held different ideals."
Said Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas in the first of many tributes: "Gabby is the spirit of bipartisanship that we should all learn from."
Giffords' friend Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., became emotional before reading Giffords' resignation letter in the well of the House. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., held Giffords' hand. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, cried after Giffords slowly made her way to the podium and handed him the envelope with her resignation letter.
Last January, a gunman opened fire at Giffords' "Congress on Your Corner" event in Tucson, killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge and wounding 13, including Giffords who suffered a gunshot wound to her head. She has spent the past year recovering, showing up in the House just once last August to vote on raising the nation's borrowing authority.
That appearance stirred speculation about her political future and whether she would seek another term or even pursue an open Senate seat.
Giffords put that talk to rest on Sunday, announcing in a Web video that she would resign this week. On Monday, she met with survivors of the shootings in Arizona, , finishing the event that she had started outside a supermarket. On Tuesday night, she received thunderous applause and a hug from President Barack Obama at his State of the Union address.
Colleagues and friends stood with her, Flake by her side. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had her back.