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Giffords casts last vote, resigns seat in emotional day in Congress

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WASHINGTON – Rep. Gabrielle Giffords cast one last vote Wednesday morning before stepping down from her House seat during an emotional farewell filled with tears and standing ovations.

The Tucson Democrat officially ended her 5-year tenure in Congress at 5 p.m. MST Wednesday, a little more than a year after being seriously wounded at a shooting in Tucson.

“All of us come to the floor today, colleagues of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, to salute her as the brightest star among us, the brightest star Congress has ever seen,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The morning was marked by emotional tributes and capped by a House vote on Giffords’ last bill, to impose new penalties on the use of ultralight aircraft for border smuggling. The bill passed unanimously.

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Scottsdale, who helped Giffords into the chamber to an extended standing ovation, said both the vote and Giffords’ decision to resign show her continued commitment to her constituents.

“The people of Arizona, particularly of southern Arizona, should be amazingly proud of the outpour of love and concern for the state, for Gabby, for her district,” Schweikert said.

Giffords’ mother, Gloria, and husband, Mark Kelly, sat in the House gallery during the farewell, which elicited about a dozen standing ovations.

Giffords was shot in the head Jan. 8, 2011, when a gunman opened fire during her “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson, killing six and wounding her and 12 others.

In a video message Sunday, she announced that she was resigning to focus on recovering from those injuries.

The emotional tributes began Tuesday, when Giffords attended the State of the Union address and was embraced by many, including President Barack Obama before he delivered his speech.

On Wednesday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., choked back tears as she read the resignation letter from her close friend, Giffords, to the House. Giffords stood next to her, smiling and holding hands with Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa. They were flanked by several other lawmakers, including most of Arizona’s congressional delegation.

“Thank you for your prayers, your cards, your well-wishes, and your support,” Giffords wrote in her letter. “And even as I have worked to regain my speech, thank you for your faith in my ability to be your voice.”

Her last act as an elected official came just minutes later when the House voted 408-0 for HR 3801, the ultralight bill. It had passed the House in late 2010 but got hung up between the House and Senate last year and died.

Flake, who cosponsored the bill for this latest go-round, said it rose out of Giffords’ discussions with residents in her district. He said it shows her ability to listen to, and speak for, her constituents.

“This closes the loophole to make it easier to prosecute (smugglers) and use the anti-smuggling laws that we have to prosecute those who take part in this activity,” Flake said.

The bill still needs Senate approval, but supporters said they are hopeful and expect the president will sign it if it lands on his desk.

Before the vote, Giffords formally handed her resignation letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Another copy was sent to Gov. Jan Brewer Wednesday.

Giffords’ goodbye moved many lawmakers of both parties – including Boehner – to tears and allowed them to briefly put their political differences aside, Schweikert said.

“I’ve never seen such a pouring of goodwill and emotion – and it was Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals,” Schweikert said. “It gave us a reason to step it up and actually work together.

“Last night I’m not sure there were as much emotion … today is more the crescendo.”