01/24/2012 08:39 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2012

Gabrielle Giffords State Of The Union Appearance: A Politics Reality Check

By LAURIE KELLMAN, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- In a bittersweet farewell, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is claiming her seat in the House of Representatives to hear President Barack Obama deliver his annual address to Congress.

Giffords, who has regained much of her ability to speak and walk after a gunshot wound to the head Jan. 8, 2011, will leave Congress this week to focus on her recovery. But first, she wanted to attend the State of the Union she was forced to miss last year in the uncertain days after the shooting. Her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was expected to watch from the gallery near First Lady Michelle Obama.

Giffords' presence may be the only element about the event above politics.

Obama is using the highest-profile pulpit in the land to reclaim the spotlight from Republicans battling for the right to face him in the general election.

The president is speaking to a bad-tempered Congress held in record level low esteem by the public for its epic partisan battles in the past year over the nation's struggling economy. He's weaving a narrative about economic fairness and taking subtle shots at Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, who released his tax return for 2010 and an estimate for 2011 earlier in the day. Republican leaders pre-labeled Obama's blueprint a "pathetic" rehash.

The political subtext seems trivial compared to the real and wrenching journey Giffords has traveled from the "Congress on Your Corner" event a year ago in Tucson that turned violent and changed everything for her to the House chamber Tuesday night. The shootings left six dead, Giffords recovering from a bullet wound to the head and 12 others injured.

The prospect of the Arizona Democrat taking her seat Tuesday night is an emotional milestone for many on Capitol Hill. Last year, her colleagues left it empty in her honor, a visual symbol of the difference between real tragedy and Washington melodrama.

Much rehabilitation awaited Giffords.

She has since regained a halting ability to speak and walk on her own. She was so disgusted about the way Congress was handling the debate over whether to raise the nation's debt ceiling in August that she made a surprise appearance in the House chamber to cast her vote.

The House gave her a standing ovation and sustained applause, one of the rare bipartisan moments in Congress last year.

The day before her latest visit to Washington, Giffords was in Tucson finishing the meeting she started on the morning she was shot, and bidding farewell to constituents who have supported her through her recovery.

She met in her office with other survivors of the shooting rampage, including Suzi Hileman, who was shot three times while trying to save her young friend and neighbor, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. The little girl died from a gunshot wound to the chest.

And In her last act in Tucson as a congresswoman, Giffords visited one of her favorite charities, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

The food bank established the Gabrielle Giffords Family Assistance Center with $215,000 it received in the wake of the shooting. The center has helped 900 families get on food stamps in the last year and offered guidance to needy families seeking assistance with housing, insurance, clothing and other basic needs.

Giffords and Kelly then jetted Monday night to Washington, her spokesman said, and spent a quiet day before the big speech and her farewell.

She is expected Wednesday to vote on one last bill, a measure she co-authored to impose tougher penalties on smugglers who use small, low-flying aircraft to avoid radar detection and bring drugs across the Mexican border.

The woman whose improbable recovery has captivated the nation hinted that her departure from public life might be temporary. Promised in a tweet: "I will return & we will work together for Arizona & this great country."