WASHINGTON-House Speaker John Boehner choked up when he took the House floor Wednesday morning to speak about "one of our own." Fighting back tears, Boehner tried to put into words Saturday's shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., that severely wounded Democrat Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six.
"Our hearts are broken but our spirit is not," Boehner said. "This is a time for the House to lock arms, in prayer, for the fallen and the wounded and resolve to carry on the dialogue of democracy."
All day long Wednesday, a continuous line of House lawmakers spoke, often emotionally, about the shooting and its aftermath. It was a day full of prayer and the quoting of Scripture-activities rare for a typical congressional session in the 21st century.
On the day that the House of Representatives had originally scheduled to conduct a likely contentious debate and vote on repealing the new healthcare law, the still-devastated members of Congress from both parties instead grieved and mourned together. They spoke in support of a House resolution that condemned the tragedy, expressed sympathy to the victims and their families, and honored those who responded to the shooting.
The resolution also called the right to free assembly, something that Giffords and others were doing outside of a Tuscan grocery store before the shooting, a "bedrock principle of American democracy."
"The free exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of our democracy," Boehner added.
On Jan. 6, just two days before the shooting, Giffords joined in the reading of the U.S. Constitution on the House floor. Ironically, she read the words of the First Amendment, which protects the right to assemble.
Lawmakers honored, among others, the 9-year-old victim born on Sept. 11, 2001; the husband who gave his life while shielding his wife from the bullets; the congressional intern who, mere days after starting to work for the congresswoman, used his first aid training to help control the bleeding from Giffords' head wound.
"How do you explain the death of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green?" asked Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Before the lawmakers began their tributes, Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, the House chaplain, opened the session with a prayer: "When in difficulty we look to the Lord. Then from all our terrors we were set free. . . . In the midst of everything, let us seek the Lord both now and forever."
Later Wednesday afternoon, House lawmakers did turn to the Lord, holding a private congressional prayer service inside the U.S. Capitol complex. In addition to music, prayer, and reflections, the service included a New Testament reading from 1 Corinthians and an Old Testament reading from Psalm 27.
"If we got together and prayed more often maybe there would be fewer tragedies like this," Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said while leaving the service.
During the service, according to those present, speakers called the victims martyrs for America because they were participating in democracy when they died. Others spoke of how this sacrifice should inspire lawmakers to better the lives of others.
After the service, attendees surrounded the Washington, D.C., staff of Giffords, offering sympathy and comfort.
"This reminds us that there is evil in the world," said Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. "But the outpouring of support, prayer, and solidarity also reminds us that America is a country of compassion, community, and empathy."
In what is called "the people's House," lawmakers took turns vowing that they will not let the events of Saturday deter them from meeting with their constituents.
"I'm not going to let one lone gunman handcuff democracy," said freshmen lawmaker Bill Huizenga, R-Mich.