The House of Representatives' vote to raise the debt ceiling Monday was upstaged by the surprise appearance of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), making her first visit to the chamber since being shot in the head in January during a visit to her home state.
It was an emotional scene, as Giffords' colleagues cheered her warmly and loudly, with many rushing to her side to welcome her back. And those emotions also played out among Giffords' staff — even though they knew the moment was coming, says her communications director, C.J. Karamargin.
He and other staff members were waiting for the moment as they watched the House vote on television, Karamargin tells All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block.
"We knew it was going to happen, so we were sitting there in silence," he says. "Once the applause started, the tears started flowing here. It was quite an emotional moment for us."
Karamargin says that the "electric" moment was a fitting way to end the long debate over the federal debt ceiling.
"It was that acrimony and bitterness that prompted the congresswoman to make the decision to return to Washington," he says.
Karamargin says that as Giffords watched Republicans, Tea Party members and Democrats debate different plans for raising the debt ceiling, at one point last week, "she turned to her husband, Mark, and shook her head and said, 'Just get it done.'"
Giffords hasn't yet decided whether she will seek reelection in 2012, Karamargin says, as she focuses on her recovery.
"She can communicate to us," he says. "You saw her last night, on the floor. She was whispering in the ears of some her colleagues, she was talking to them. Yes, she can communicate. And her verbal skills, like her physical strength, are continuing to improve tremendously."
As she headed to the House floor to cast her vote Monday, a new message popped up on Giffords' Twitter account: "The Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight."
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
C.J. Karamargin is Representative Giffords' communications director. He joins me from Tucson. And, C.J., you were watching on TV from the district office last night?
KARAMARGIN: Yes, with my colleagues. We were crammed into my little office. We had two televisions on. We knew it was going to happen, so we were sitting there in silence. And then once the applause started, the tears started flying here. It was quite an emotional moment for us.
BLOCK: What have you heard from the staff who were with her in the chamber last night about what the mood was like, what the feeling was of being back in the halls of Congress?
KARAMARGIN: Yeah, the mood was electric. It really was something else. It was, I think, a great way to end what has been a tremendously acrimonious and bitter debate. That vote was probably the single-most important vote taken by Congress this year. And the congresswoman insisted on being in Washington for it.
BLOCK: Congresswoman Giffords did release a statement after the vote. And she did say she has deeply disappointed by what's going on in Washington. How closely is she following what's going on in Congress?
KARAMARGIN: Well, she has been following the debate very closely. She's been briefed on it. Last week, when the discussions reached a particular impasse, she turned to her husband, Mark, and shook her head and said just get it done.
BLOCK: Her reappearance, of course, C.J., raised a lot of questions and curiosity about where she is in her recovery, one of which would have to do with language. I remember seeing a story a few months back in the Arizona Republic saying that she was communicating with very small phrases, single words. Where is she now with her language recovery?
KARAMARGIN: Well, her recovery is continuing to improve. Going to Washington to cast a vote that was absolutely critical for our economy doesn't change the fact that she still has work to do in her recovery. The congresswoman wants to return to her job full-time, but she wants to return when she is able to devote her complete attention to it. And that's the goal that she's been working toward for months now and that's the goal that she will continue to work toward.
BLOCK: So, the statement that was released by your office last night, would that be something that she could articulate verbally? Could she type a statement like that?
KARAMARGIN: She can communicate to us. I mean, we saw her last night on the floor. She was whispering in the ears of some of her colleagues. Yes, she can communicate and her verbal skills, like her physical strength, are continuing to improve tremendously.
BLOCK: Now, Congresswoman Giffords hasn't yet filed for re-election next year. Any decisions yet about 2012?
KARAMARGIN: No. The congresswoman is focused on her recovery. No decision has been made about 2012, and I think there's still plenty of time for those decisions to be made.
BLOCK: C.J. Karamargin, thanks for talking with us today.
KARAMARGIN: Thank you.
BLOCK: C.J. Karamargin is communications director for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She returned to Washington to vote yes on the debt ceiling bill last night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.