WASHINGTON - To bipartisan hugs, tears and a roaring standing ovation, a hobbling Majority Whip Steve Scalise returned to the House on Thursday, more than three months after a gunman sprayed fire at a baseball practice and left the lawmaker clinging to life.
"You have no idea how great this feels to be back here at work in the people's House," the 51-year-old Louisiana Republican said to a chamber packed with lawmakers, including senators who crossed the Capitol to welcome him back.
Scalise limped into the chamber on crutches and wearing sneakers, smiling broadly and blowing kisses in his first public appearance since the June 14 shooting. In an extraordinary gesture, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., presided and ordered members to sit in their chairs to listen to Scalise's remarks.
"Our prayers have been answered," Ryan said.
The moment marked a departure from the bitter divisions that have dominated Congress this year between two parties battling over President Donald Trump and the GOP agenda.
"It does show the warm side of Congress that very few people get to see," Scalise said.
Scalise and four others were injured when a gunman opened fire on a Republican baseball practice in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. U.S. Capitol Police and other officers returned fire and killed the gunman. The rifle-wielding attacker had nursed grievances against Trump and the GOP.
Scalise was struck in the hip; the bullet tore into blood vessels, bones and internal organs. He arrived at Medstar Washington Hospital Center at "imminent risk of death," trauma surgeon Dr. Jack Sava said at the time. He was hospitalized for more than a month and has undergone rehabilitation treatment ever since.
"I'm a living example that miracles do happen," Scalise said.
On Thursday, Scalise headed into the House chamber through the adjacent Statuary Hall, walking past journalists, cameras, congressional staffers and tourists.
"I'm walking, I'm voting, I'm back to work," he said.
Scalise thanked the two Capitol Hill police officers who helped kill the shooter, James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois, and he praised the doctors who patched him together through repeated surgeries. The officers, Crystal Griner and David Bailey, were also injured.
"David, you are my hero," Scalise said to Bailey, who was in the chamber. "You saved my life."
Griner is still recovering at home. The lawmaker also thanked his wife, Jennifer, who watched from the visitor's gallery.
Among those Scalise embraced were a teary-eyed Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Army combat surgeon in Iraq. The Ohio Republican applied a tourniquet that Scalise said helped control his bleeding and saved his life. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised Scalise's strength and said, "Today we are Team Scalise."
Under normal circumstances, she would be plotting to undermine Scalise, who as No. 3 House GOP leader is in charge of rounding up votes for Republican legislation. But for the day -- or for a few minutes, anyway -- partisanship was abandoned.
Seated behind Scalise was Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., star of the Democrats' baseball team. Republicans and Democrats alike gathered around Scalise for selfies, a clear violation of House rules that neither party had any interest in enforcing.
"It was just a good moment, especially if you tracked his fight and the hard work he had to put in to get to this point," Richmond said afterward.
At one point, Scalise was handed a baseball bat that he waved over his head, eliciting additional cheers.
"I'm not a big crier, but I was today," Ryan told a reporter afterward.
Scalise's homecoming recalled the August 2011 return to the House of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was seriously wounded after a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Since her shooting, Giffords has become a national leader of gun control efforts.
The group she founded with husband Mark Kelly, Americans for Responsible Solutions, emailed a fundraising solicitation Thursday, asking for money to help pressure Congress "to put our safety ahead of the corporate gun lobby's profits."