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Gabrielle Giffords' not the first sickbed-to-Capitol Hill vote

August 2, 2011 | 11:41 am

Gabrielle Giffords

It was high drama on Capitol Hill –- and I don’t mean about the debt-ceiling debate, for which "low" is a more apt adjective.

I mean the startling appearance in the House of Representatives of one of its honorable members, Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, missing from that chamber’s ranks since an assassination attempt sent a bullet through her brain outside a Tucson grocery store last January.

Bipartisan applause broke out and a standing ovation welcomed Giffords as she walked under her own steam onto the floor; she mouthed the words "thank you" and gave a wave, then cast her vote in favor of the deal to raise the debt ceiling.

(Happily, the fulsome welcome seemed unanimous. There haven’t been many moments of amity lately. When California’s newest member of Congress, South Bay Democrat Janice Hahn, took her seat late last month after a contentious win against a "tea party"-backed Republican, her fellow Californian, San Dimas Republican David Dreier, welcomed her warmly and recalled her father, Kenneth Hahn, and his service to Los Angeles, as well as her mother’s death the day before the election. But it was reported that a few Republican colleagues did not stand for the usual welcoming ovation, and others found themselves absorbed in their smartphones during her maiden speech.)

But Giffords’ vote was far from the only highly dramatic "aye" to be cast under exceptional medical circumstances on Capitol Hill in recent history. There were two in the U.S. Senate, and both came from Californians.

In May 1985, Republican senator and future governor Pete Wilson was recuperating from an emergency appendectomy when he left Bethesda Naval Hospital by ambulance to be whisked to the Senate to cast the tying vote for a Reagan White House budget plan.

The ambulance rolled up to the Capitol building at midnight; Wilson was laid out on a gurney, but it couldn’t fit in the elevator. So a wheelchair was brought and Wilson was rolled up to the Senate cloakroom, where Majority Leader Bob Dole asked Wilson’s doctor, "Let me ask only one thing –- can he say yes?"

At about 1:30 a.m., Wilson was rolled into the Senate chamber. Four security guards lifted the wheelchair up the two steps into the aisle. Whatever sartorial niceties he usually observed, this time, Wilson was wearing blue pajamas and a brown bathrobe, with a tan blanket draped over his legs. He voted "aye" -- to a standing ovation like the one accorded Giffords.

His vote made it 49-49, and Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, was left to cast the tiebreaking vote to pass the Reagan budget.

The other vote, 11 years earlier, was not decisive, but it was no less dramatic. In June 1964, as the Senate debated the historic civil rights bill -– now there’s a venomous moment for you -– another senator was wheeled into the chamber to cast his vote.

Clair Engle, a Democrat from California, had had brain surgery in August 1963. On April 13, 1964, back in the Senate, he had tried to stand to introduce a measure. Words failed him; for several moments, he stood mute, until a Michigan senator came over and introduced the resolution for him, and two aides showed up to walk Engle off the Senate floor.

A couple of months later, he returned, brought by ambulance from his home a few blocks away. He was wearing a suit and tie, and his right arm was in a sling. He was smiling as he was wheeled in for a vote on the civil rights bill.

His colleagues had already agreed to let him vote without speaking, so Engle nodded and raised his left arm to cast his vote toward the two-thirds margin necessary to end a filibuster on the bill and paving the way for its passage.

The filibusterer, by the way, a man who had spoken for 14 hours and 13 minutes, was West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, a onetime Ku Klux Klan official and vehement segregationist who later apologized repeatedly for his racist sentiments, and became the procedural lion of the Senate. The filibuster-ending vote passed, 71-29, with both Republican and Democratic votes.

Three weeks after Engle’s vote the historic civil rights bill became law, and three weeks after that Engle died.


Debt ceiling: A squandered deal

Debt ceiling: One clear profile in courage

Obama throws the GOP a debt-ceiling rope

Debt ceiling: What's the excuse for voting 'no'?

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., sits in a car with her husband Mark Kelly as she leaves the U.S. Capitol after she appeared on the House floor to vote on debt legislation in Washington, Monday, Aug. 1, 2011. Credit: Susan Walsh / AP Photo

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