In this image from House television, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords appears on… (House Television / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) returned to Congress in dramatic fashion for the first time since she was shot in the head in January, appearing almost unannounced in the midst of voting on one of the most contentious issues of the year.
The House erupted in a bipartisan standing ovation as she entered. The congresswoman, 41, who has been out of the public eye and hospitalized much of the year, stood unaided to recognize the thunderous applause.
Wearing cropped brown hair, a turquoise jacket and her distinctive smile, Giffords embraced a stream of colleagues who flocked to her. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz (D-Fla.), who is among her closest friends in Congress, was at her side.
Photos: Gabrielle Giffords
"It was an inspiration, really, to all the members, Democrats and Republicans. We're very excited about seeing her," said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.).
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) dabbed her eyes. Others passed around tissues.
"Her presence here ... as well as her entire service to Congress, brings honor to this chamber," Pelosi said, adding that there "isn't a name that stirs more admiration" throughout the country than Giffords'.
"She is the perfect example of bipartisanship," said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas).
It was the latest milestone in Giffords' recovery. She and 18 others were shot as she greeted constituents in Tucson. Six people died. Jared Lee Loughner, 22, has been charged but ruled incompetent to stand trial.
Giffords said in a statement that she was compelled to return to vote on the debt ceiling legislation Monday. Debate over raising the nation's $14.3-trillion debt ceiling has been bitter, divisive and partisan.
"I had to be here for this vote. I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy," said Giffords, who voted "aye." The bill passed comfortably.
The three-term Democrat was discharged in June from the Houston hospital where she had been rehabilitating. She made a brief visit to her district on Father's Day weekend, but has otherwise stayed with her husband, astronaut Mark E. Kelly, outside Houston.
Kelly and the rest of the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour are scheduled to meet with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday.
"One's going to space, and one's trying to get back to earth," said Vice President Joe Biden, who said he made a special trip to Congress when he heard Giffords would be there. "Think about it. It's an incredible family."
Photos: Gabrielle Giffords
Shane Goldmacher and Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.