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Giffords returns as House votes yes; Elevates emotions as bill is passed to avert default

The House voted Monday to rescue the nation from the brink of default, a landmark moment made all the more dramatic by the surprise return to the House floor of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt nearly seven months ago.

The bill, which will raise the federal debt ceiling in two steps and reduce the federal deficit by upward of $2.1 trillion over a decade, appeared to be moving toward passage before the Democratic congresswoman appeared at the back of the chamber with about three minutes left in the vote.

Upon seeing Giffords, lawmakers from both parties, the audience in the galleries and the press corps burst into an ovation that lasted minutes.

Giffords smiled and waved and hugged her colleagues. Many, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., could be seen wiping away tears. And dozens of lawmakers who had withheld their votes until that point voted "aye."

"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 a statement released later.

"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.

Economists from across the political spectrum said that would be exactly what would happen if Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling by the end of today. Without more borrowing, the nation couldn't pay all of its bills -- and a lower credit rating, and higher interest rates, would have resulted.

But now, after Monday's 269-161 vote in the House, the Senate is expected to vote today on the legislation the House passed, raising the debt ceiling by more than $2 trillion, which is enough the carry the nation past the 2012 presidential election.

The deal was a bipartisan one that few House members liked.

It will result in $917 billion in spending cuts over the next decade and an immediate $400 billion boost in the debt ceiling, to be followed by another $500 billion in debt authority later this year unless Congress votes to repeal it.

Beyond that, the deal charges a bipartisan, bicameral committee with developing a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction plan by November. Congress will have to approve that plan in an up-or-down vote by Dec. 23, or else subject the nation to a round of huge spending cuts in both domestic and military programs that's designed to be unpalatable to both parties.

Even Democrats who supported the deal had harsh words for it. They said it cut government programs too deeply for one reason and one reason only: Republicans refused to raise taxes, even on the wealthiest Americans.

Democratic lawmakers were livid that Republicans turned raising the debt ceiling -- once a routine piece of congressional business -- into a drama that threatened to throw the nation into default and recession unless the GOP got its way.

"They were willing to let this country go to the brink -- we're at the brink -- and literally have everybody jump off the cliff together," said Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, who voted for the bill. "I felt that it was my duty as a member of Congress to not let that happen."

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, agreed, saying he had to support the bill to prevent economic calamity.

"The heart says 'no' " to the debt ceiling bill, he said. "But the head says 'yes.' "

Republicans were slightly more positive about the bill.

"This act is not perfect," said Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican who wanted the bill to include deeper spending cuts. "However, it is a significant step forward toward changing the borrowing and spending culture of Washington."

Several GOP members complained that the compromise measure, hammered out by the White House and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not put huge pressure on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

Still, Republicans voted for it, 174-66, while Democrats split, 95-95.

While backers stressed their lack of enthusiasm for the bill, opponents spoke venomously.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., told Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that the bill was "a sugar-coated Satan sandwich."

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, termed the bill "awful."

"The fact that the money we're saving is coming from the most vulnerable in our society is terrible," she said. "Today's agreement will only endanger the potential for new jobs while asking absolutely nothing of those who are most well off."

Then again, some tea party Republicans were every bit as livid about the measure.

"This plan does not solve our problem. Not even close," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in a statement. "I cannot abide the destruction of our economy, therefore I vigorously oppose this deal and I urge my colleagues and the American people to do the same."

Rep. Mark Mulvaney, R-S.C., agreed, saying: "At the end of the day, Washington's spending still has us sprinting toward a fiscal cliff. And this bill barely slows us down," said Mulvaney.

The leaders who agreed to the deal, and their spokesmen, were far more positive.

Meeting with reporters before the vote, White House communications director Dan Pfieffer stressed that tax increases on the wealthy could very much be part of the deficit-cutting deal that the bipartisan committee will concoct.

Meanwhile, the debt ceiling agreement ends the uncertainty over the issue that has been weighing on the economy while protecting college grants and other programs important to the president, Pfieffer said.

"It's not a perfect deal," Pfieffer conceded. "But it's a very good deal."

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, also lauded the measure. "The legislation will solve this debt crisis and help get the American people back to work," he said at a news conference a before the vote.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where a noontime vote is expected. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they expected the measure to pass the Senate with little drama.

Then again, there's no way the Senate vote can match the drama of Gifford's return.

"It means so much to our country to witness the return of our colleague who is the personification of courage, of sincerity, of admiration throughout the country," Pelosi, who reluctantly supported the bill, told the House.

"Giffords is the perfect example of bipartisanship," said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who voted no.

Indeed, Giffords seemed to bring together a House that has been angrily divided for weeks.

Accompanied to the floor by Boehner, Giffords huddled quickly with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a close friend. And then she made her way slowly through the Democratic caucus, shaking hands with one hand and the other laying limp at her side.

Approaching lawmakers she knew best, Giffords could be seen mouthing the words: "I love you."

And shortly after leaving the House chamber, Giffords tweeted: "The Capitol looks beautiful, and I am honored to be at work tonight."

News Wire Services contributed to this report.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com