US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords returned to the House floor today for the first time since she was shot in the head in January, receiving a thunderous ovation from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Giffords, a Democrat who has not been to Washington since the shooting at a political event in her home state of Arizona, returned to vote in favor of a bill to raise the US debt ceiling and avoid default.
The congresswoman, who has been undergoing intense rehabilitation and has kept out of the public eye, caught the chamber by surprise.
With two minutes to go in the 15-minute vote, Giffords walked in and hugged House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
The chamber, which has been the site of acrimonious debate and bitter partisan fighting for weeks, erupted in applause as Giffords entered then voted "yes" to the bill.
Giffords, with short dark hair that is growing out after multiple head surgeries, was mobbed by people from both parties who wanted to shake her hand and offer a hug.
After the vote, Pelosi acknowledged Giffords on the House floor and called her the "personification of courage."
A radiant Giffords blew kisses and waved to Pelosi and the crowd as she stood on her own on the floor. She greeted Vice President Biden, who was in the chamber for the vote.
Though she talked energetically with colleagues and waved constantly to others, Giffords moved gingerly and with caution. Her aides kept a close watch on her, offering a stabilizing hand to sit or support her.
The first sign that Giffords was to return was a Tweet from her office: "Gabrielle has returned to Washington to support a bipartisan bill to prevent economic crisis. Turn on C-SPAN now: j.mp/hmYxTM."
A few minutes later, after she cast her vote, Giffords offered up her own tweet: "The #Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight."
Just one day before the deadline to lift the debt ceiling, the passage by 269 votes to 161 by the Republican-controlled House paved the way for an expected approval in the Senate of a $2.1 trillion deficit-cutting plan hammered out over the weekend.
The Democratic-led Senate is expected to vote on the plan tomorrow.
Financial markets worldwide have been rattled by uncertainty over whether the compromise plan could pass the House in the face of objections from conservative Tea Party Republicans and from liberal Democrats.
Having a deal in place to raise the U.S. government's $14.3 trillion borrowing limit will remove the risk of the United States not being able to borrow money to pay all of its bills.
But Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan yesterday warned that the US still faced a long and painful adjustment.
Concerns also remain that the world's largest economy could still have its credit rating downgraded for the first time in its history after lengthy negotiations came dangerously close to the deadline to avoid it from defaulting on its debt.
World markets welcomed the news yesterday that Democrats and Republicans had a tentative agreement after weeks of bickering that led to dire warnings of another global financial crisis.
Australian shares gained more than 1 per cent in a relief rally, and markets were also up in Asia and in early trading in Europe.
The deal also removes one of the key impediments to the Reserve Bank, which meets today, from raising interest rates, although it also received more evidence yesterday that much of the Australian economy is still struggling.
Under the deal, the US debt limit will be raised by US$2.4 trillion (A$2.19 trillion) in two steps, enough to keep the Government afloat through to the 2012 elections.
It includes cuts of more than $US900 billion over the next decade and sets up a special committee in Congress to find $US1.5 trillion in further cuts by November 23. A deadlock would trigger automatic spending cuts designed to be unacceptable to both parties.
US President Barack Obama, who gave up his insistence on raising taxes on wealthy Americans to get the agreement, said it was not the deal he would have preferred.
"[But] most importantly it will allow us to avoid default and end the crisis that Washington imposed on the rest of America. And it will allow us to lift the cloud of debt and uncertainty."
Mr Swan said the agreement was a very important first step, but there was still a long and painful adjustment ahead for the US.
"We've got to go to the next step and that's just as important. W'eve got to see a pathway for fiscal consolidation in the United States and we need that for global certainty. We need that for global growth. A lot of people are going to be watching."
Although Australia was not immune from global economic problems, Australians could have great confidence that its economy was strong, he said.
Growth in the region is strong, commodity prices are still strong, investment pipeline into Australia is still strong, Mr Swan said.
Opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey said the lesson from the event was not to spend too much money.
The deal, should it be ratified, would remove one of the impediments to the Reserve Bank from raising interest rates. Economists say the central bank is weighing up growing inflation and fears about the impact of the commodities boom as an argument to raise rates, against global worries and that much of the rest of the Australian economy is struggling.
CommSec economist Savanth Sebastian said all the data published yesterday pointed to an economy that was fast grinding to a halt.
The manufacturing sector is contracting at the fastest pace in two years while new home sales recorded the biggest monthly slide in five years all in an environment that suggests core inflation is still relatively contained, he said.
The Australian economy is facing an array of headwinds and the lack of business and consumer confidence is resulting in a slowdown in activity clearly not an environment to justify further interest rate hikes.
The TD Securities inflation gauge rose by 0.3 per cent in July, to give an annual reading of 3.2 per cent. However, its measure of underlying inflation put the annual rate at 2.1per cent. The Australian Industry Groups manufacturing index, which dropped 9.5 points to 43.4, indicated that sector shrank in July.
Meanwhile, a Housing Industry Association survey found that new home sales experienced their heaviest monthly decline since mid-2006, dropping 8.7 per cent in June.
with Reuters, agencies