WASHINGTON — Moving on crutches and grinning from ear to ear, Congressman Steve Scalise walked back into the U.S House of Representatives Thursday in a dramatic return more than three months since he was critically wounded by a gunman during an early morning baseball practice.

Scalise, the Republican majority whip, was playing second base on a field in a Washington suburb last June — an early morning practice for an upcoming annual congressional charity baseball game — when the attacker fired his semi-automatic rifle.

The ballgame went on — with fans and congressional colleagues donning caps from LSU, Scalise’s alma mater, in his honor — but without the Republicans’ feisty middle infielder. The rifle round ripped through internal organs and bones, dealing damage that required numerous surgeries to repair. When he first arrived at Washington’s MedStar Hospital, a doctor told reporters, he was in “imminent risk of death.”

On Thursday, as Scalise worked his way onto the House floor, lawmakers in the packed room rose from their seats and broke out in shouts, cheers and applause. Anticipation had been building as word spread of Scalise’s imminent arrival. Senators poured in from the other chamber while reporters and tourists staked out seats above.

Scalise, wearing bright blue sneakers with his dark suit and red tie, beamed as he made his way toward his seat for the first time since the shooting. He bumped fists, shook hands and pointed at colleagues. The slow procession halted repeatedly as House members, overcome with emotion, rushed forward to embrace him.

Scalise pumped his fist triumphantly when he’d finally reached his regular podium, flashed a thumbs-up at one colleague and blew a kiss to another. The congressman, a week shy of his 52nd birthday, looked around to soak up the scene, a huge smile sprawled across his face.

“You have no idea how good this feels to be back at work in the people’s House,” Scalise said.

Can't see video below? Click here.

 

Scalise then went on to thank a number of “true angels along the way,” beginning with Crystal Griner and David Bailey, two Capitol Police officers assigned to Scalise’s security detail who returned fire at the shooter  — ultimately killing him — despite being wounded themselves. Scalise recalled being reassured by hearing a crack of a different caliber weapon, knowing it meant Griner and Bailey were returning fire.

“You are my hero, you saved my life, thank you so much,” Scalise said, pointing up at Bailey. Griner was unable to come, Scalise added.

Bailey was sitting next to Scalise’s wife, Jennifer, in the front row of the House’s upper gallery. On the other side of Jennifer Scalise were the two lead physicians from MedStar Hospital who treated Scalise and “put me back together again.”

Scalise also thanked Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, a doctor and Army combat veteran, and interrupted his speech to give his fellow congressman a tearful embrace. Wenstrup was also at the baseball practice on the morning of the shooting and rushed to Scalise after police took down the shooter and applied a tourniquet to the bleeding wound, an act Scalise credited with saving his life.

Scalise repeatedly used the word “warmth” during his speech Thursday morning, using it to describe the outpouring of support he and his family have received after the shooting as well as the embrace he felt upon his return from colleagues in both parties.

“While some people might focus on a tragic event and an evil act, to me, all I can remember are the thousands of acts of kindness and warmth and love that came out of this and kept me going through all of it,” Scalise said. “It re-emphasized just how wonderful most people are and how much compassion is out there.”

Scalise named several New Orleans-area churches that held blood drives and prayed for him in the wake of the shooting before adding his thanks for those whom he’d never met — regular Americans along with world leaders — who’d offered their own prayers or called him with their support.

“Yes, it changed me, but not in the ways you might think,” he added. “It’s only strengthened my faith in God and it’s really crystallized what shows up as the goodness in people.”

Scalise’s return marked a relatively rare show of bipartisan unity amid acrimony in Congress. Democrats and Republicans alike whispered with giddy excitement as news of Scalise’s return — which was publicly announced less than an hour before his arrival — spread around the Capitol. As workers hung red velvet ropes through Statuary Hall to the Rotunda for Scalise, members of Congress mixed with tourists and reporters eagerly awaiting his arrival.

Among them were Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and Rep. Diane Black, R-Tennessee.

“I didn’t know he’d be making an appearance today,” Black said. “It’s exciting.”

Although Republicans and Democrats usually sit on opposite sides of the floor, one Democrat had conspicuously swapped his normal seat for a spot on the Republican side of the aisle: Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, a friend of Scalise’s and, as Scalise noted, an occasional “arch-rival in baseball.”

Richmond sat directly behind Scalise throughout his appearance Thursday, embracing him several times. Scalise spoke about how Richmond — a collegiate pitcher in his days at Morehouse College and star of the congressional games — was practicing elsewhere with the Democratic team that morning when he heard about the shooting.

“Cedric Richmond somehow figured out which hospital I was sent to and got there, probably the first person on the scene, still in his baseball uniform, to check on me. So many others of you, both Republican and Democrat, reached out in ways that I can’t express the gratitude,” Scalise said.

Scalise concluded his speech by framing the attack — carried out by 66-year-old James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois — as an assault on the entire institution of Congress and the U.S. government, “the leader of the free world.”

“People all around the world who believe in freedom are counting on us as well and we will deliver for them. That’s why I’m so honored to be back in the House serving with you,” Scalise said. “God bless each and every one of you, and God bless the United States of America.”

He then blew a kiss to his wife before being mobbed by colleagues. For about 40 minutes, Scalise continued to hold court, chatting on the House floor and posing for selfies. One congressman handed him a wrapped baseball bat as a welcome-back gift.

Scalise then made his way back out of the chamber, accompanied by aides, before walking through the Capitol’s Statuary Hall and into the Rotunda. Hundreds of colleagues, staffers and tourists lined the way, cheering loudly as he passed.

Just outside the chamber, he’d left parked a purple-and-gold scooter, dotted with LSU Tigers stickers, a miniature Louisiana license plate — “Sportman’s Paradise” and carrying a custom tag number, “MAJ WHIP” — fixed to the back of the chair.

“It felt incredible,” Scalise said as he moved on crutches through the Capitol, “to feel the love and warmth of my colleagues, being back at work.”

“I’m feeling good,” Scalise added.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.