For the past 15 weeks, every gathering of House Republican leaders has had one thing in common: an empty chair, marking the absence of Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
It was a sign of respect for the boisterous Louisianian and a reminder of the quiet anguish that has beset Capitol Hill since a lone gunman, targeting GOP lawmakers practicing in Virginia for a charity baseball game, wounded Scalise and three others on June 14.
That heartache evaporated Thursday in the great roar that greeted Scalise as he made a surprise return to a packed House chamber and addressed his colleagues for the first time since the shooting.
“I'm definitely a living example that miracles really do happen,” he said.
The rifle rounds fired by James T. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old unemployed Illinois home inspector who opposed President Donald Trump, did grievous damage to Scalise. As he played second base, one bullet entered his hip and traveled across his body, tearing apart muscle and bone and causing so much blood loss that doctors would later describe Scalise as being at “imminent risk of death” when he arrived in their care.
A series of surgeries, at least one serious infection and weeks of grueling inpatient recovery followed, prompting frequent speculation in the hallways of the Capitol about when – or even whether – Scalise would ever return to the demanding job of chief GOP vote-counter.
But Scalise, though visibly thinner and hobbling on a pair of crutches, entered the House chamber on his feet Thursday, made his way to his usual place at the Republican desk, and spoke with no apparent weakness for more than 15 minutes.
He then cast his first vote since June – in favor of a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and extend tax benefits to hurricane victims.
“For what purpose does the gentleman from Louisiana seek recognition?” a visibly emotional House Speaker Paul Ryan asked from the rostrum.
“To speak out of order, Mr. Speaker,” said Scalise, prompting another roar of applause.
The chamber was rife with emotional displays. Scalise made it three steps into the chamber before Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, delivered a bear hug. Democrats waved and whooped at Scalise from across the chamber. Faces throughout the room tightened to stifle tears as Scalise thanked God, family, friends, colleagues, doctors and the law enforcement officers who ultimately killed the shooter before he could do more harm.
“I'm not a big crier,” Ryan told reporters later, recalling a private meeting with Scalise earlier in the day. “But I just was a babbling idiot. I just could not compose myself.”
Scalise sat alongside other GOP leaders – Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C. – but also next to a close Democratic friend, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, a fellow Louisianian who was among the first lawmakers to arrive at the hospital.
Hodgkinson opened fire during the GOP's early-morning practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, shooting four people. He was pronounced dead at a hospital after a gun battle with police.
On the House floor Thursday, Scalise reflected on prayers that were answered and messages of support he had received from world leaders he had never met.
“While some people might focus on a tragic event and an evil act, to me, all I remember are the thousands of acts of kindness and love and warmth that came out of this,” he said.
Scalise used his speech to highlight the lifesaving work of one of unheralded players in the shooting incident: Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, a backbench lawmaker in his fifth year in office – and a former combat surgeon with a Bronze Star from his Army tours in Iraq.
Wenstrup rushed to Scalise's side on June 14, applying tourniquets to keep blood loss down until he could be flown to a trauma center. As Scalise led a standing ovation for Wenstrup, the Ohio Republican darted across the floor and into his friend's arms, both lawmakers near tears.
The type of pelvic wound suffered by Scalise is considered extremely dangerous, doctors say, because that region of the body is crowded with organs and blood vessels. They include the iliac blood vessels, which are major arteries branching off from the aorta.
Scalise underwent several surgeries at MedStar Washington Hospital Center to repair his injuries and, at one point, suffered a setback due to an infection that required additional surgery.
Scalise praised his medical team Thursday: “They gave me a second chance at life.”