WASHINGTON — Aides to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said Tuesday she wants to return to her job in Washington if her physical and mental recovery allows it.
A day after she stunned colleagues by appearing on the House floor to vote for the debt ceiling deal, Giffords planned to return to Houston on Tuesday after meeting privately with staff. It's unclear when she'll return.
Spokesman C.J. Karamargin told The Associated Press that she is eager to return work, but can't make any decisions yet about whether to seek re-election in 2012.
"There's no question Gabby Giffords wants to return to her job fulltime when she's able to devote her complete attention to it," Karamargin said. "Going to Washington to cast a vote that's absolutely critical to the country doesn't change the fact she still has work to do in her recovery."
Giffords voted for the bill, which passed 269-161.
Karamargin said Giffords grew frustrated watching colleagues struggle to reach agreement on how to raise the debt ceiling.
"At one point last week, when the debate reached one of its many impasses, Gabby said, 'Just get it done,'" Karamargin said. "I think that 'just-get-it-done' sentiment is something a lot of people shared. That ultimately is what motivated her to go to Washington and participate in this historic vote."
Giffords' entrance, with just minutes remaining in the vote, surprised lawmakers and added even more drama to a high-stakes day.
The Arizona Democrat responded to the attention with a smile, blowing kisses and mouthing the words "thank you" several times.
"We were just hugging. Girl hugs," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Other colleagues, surprised and joyful, made their way to greet Giffords as she was enveloped in a cluster of Democratic lawmakers.
Giffords, 41, used one hand to greet some, the other by her side.
Her hair was dark and closely cropped, and she wore glasses, a far-different image from the one Americans saw seven months ago when she was sworn in for a third term by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"It was one of the most thrilling moments for all of us to see this real heroine return to the House," Pelosi said, "and to do so at such a dramatic time."
Giffords' return raised questions about when she might be able to return full time and whether she would seek-re-election. The latest financial reports show the Arizona Democrat with more than $787,000 in the bank at the end of June, thanks to friends and colleagues who have raised money to ensure she has the resources for a campaign.
"She still has rehabilitation to go through, and a lot of recovery. So she's not ready to come back full time," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a friend of Giffords and chair of the Democratic National Committee. "But she wanted her district to have its voice here on probably the most important vote we'll cast this Congress."
Giffords exited the House chamber by the east door, leaning heavily on an aide as she walked with obvious difficulty. Her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, accompanied her. Police had cleared a path through a mob of reporters, and Giffords did not respond to questions and greetings.
Near the doorway to the House, Vice President Joe Biden greeted Giffords and marveled at her return.
"She's remarkable. Will matters," Biden said in an interview. "She's the embodiment of a strong, strong, strong woman. Think about what that woman's been through, and think about her determination."
On Jan. 8, Giffords was shot in the head in the parking lot of a Tucson grocery store while meeting with constituents. Six people were killed and 13 others, including Giffords, were wounded. The man charged in the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, was sent to a federal prison facility in Springfield, Mo., after a federal judge concluded he was mentally incompetent to stand trial on 49 charges.
In true congressional style, Giffords issued a news release after the vote — the only thing typical in an atypical day.
"I have closely followed the debate over our debt ceiling and have been deeply disappointed at what's going on in Washington," Giffords said in the statement.
"I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics. I had to be here for this vote. I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy," she said.
Pelosi said Giffords had decided to come for the debt-ceiling vote, something the House Democratic leader didn't learn about until Monday morning. The House's No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer, learned about Giffords' return just 30 minutes before she arrived. Wasserman Schultz said she found out that the congresswoman would cast her vote from a 2 a.m. text message she received from Kelly.
The vote marked the latest milestone in Giffords' recovery.
A month after the shooting, she showed her ability to communicate by asking for toast. She has made two trips to Florida to watch her astronaut husband in the shuttle launch. She also underwent surgery to repair of a piece of her skull that had been removed.
Giffords has been undergoing outpatient therapy in Houston since her release from the hospital in June. She made a visit to Tucson for a Father's Day celebration.
In Tucson on Monday, Pam Simon, a Giffords staffer who also survived the shooting, said she and everyone in her office huddled around the TV to watch the congresswoman's return to the floor.
"We were hugging and some of us were in tears and some people were shouting. It was very joyful," Simon said.
"We will be forever tied to that tragic event," she added. "Seeing Gabby there is just a wonderful step for us all."
She said she thought Giffords looked excited yet relaxed.Comment on this story
"Knowing Gabby, I know she is just so happy to be back among her colleagues," she said. "Didn't she look right at home?"
Ron Barber, another Giffords staffer who survived the shooting, said he was in physical therapy for his gunshot wound to the thigh when Giffords voted, but he tuned in when he got back to his Tucson home.
"I have to admit I wept," he said. "All of us who were with her that day are encouraged by her progress."
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Charles Babington and Alan Fram in Washington and Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix contributed to this report.