WASHINGTON (AP) Wednesday was supposed to be House Speaker John Boehner's first test of leadership, as Republicans had planned to hold a vote on repealing the controversial health care law, a campaign promise for many tea party freshmen.
Instead, the West Chester Republican faced a different test - reassuring lawmakers who were worried about their safety and leading them in prayer and tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and other victims of the shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., over the weekend.
The health care vote has been postponed, putting off what is expected to be a passionate and highly partisan floor debate. A resolution honoring the dead and wounded in the weekend's shootings was considered instead.
With a breaking voice and a handkerchief on hand, Boehner spoke of the "unspeakable act of violence" that took six lives, including that of Giffords' aide Gabe Zimmerman, whom Boehner called "one of our own."
"At the time of the attack, he was engaged in the most simple and direct of democratic rituals - listening to the people, listening to his neighbors," Boehner said, his eyes welling with tears as he thanked staff members for what they do to "make this institution work."
With all eyes on him, Boehner sought to both soothe and affirm lawmakers and viewers shaken by the violence.
"We feel a litany of unwanted emotions that no resolution could possibly capture," he said. "We know that we gather here without distinction of party. The needs of this institution have always risen above partisanship."
'The lifeblood of our democracy'
Boehner's remarks led off a day of tributes to Giffords and the other victims.
"Today I stand here to say - not as a Republican or a Democrat, but as an American - that violence has no place in our society, and I wish and pray for peace and justice for all of those who have been involved in this tragedy," said Rep. Mike Turner, a Centerville Republican who represents part of Warren County.
Rep. Jean Schmidt, a Miami Township Republican, called on everyone to pray for Giffords and the families of all those affected by the shootings.
"I don't think any words can sum up what we need to do here," Schmidt said. "Let us hope that all of those who have been touched by this tragedy can heal."
Recalling his first speech as speaker, Boehner called on his fellow lawmakers to continue carrying out the duties that they pledged exactly one week ago.
"Today it is not ceremony, but tragedy that stirs us to renew our commitment to fulfill our oaths of office," Boehner said. ''Let us not let this inhuman act frighten us into doing otherwise. The free exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of our democracy."
'Taking all the right steps'
Earlier on Wednesday, Boehner met with GOP lawmakers and Capitol Police behind closed doors in a basement office of the Capitol to discuss security precautions.
"We're hearing what we need to do," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said while leaving the meeting. "I think Speaker Boehner is taking all the right steps."
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., agreed. "The briefing was good," he said. "Speaker Boehner has done an outstanding job of setting the proper tone and making sure that the members are informed."
Even Democrats have praised Boehner's response.
"He has said the right things and set the right tone," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told the New York Times. "I think he has acted swiftly, effectively and responsibly."
Leading by example, Boehner's office told The Enquirer that despite security concerns in the wake of the shooting, the speaker would continue to fly commercial between Ohio and Washington, something he promised in November.
"Boehner did fly commercial this past weekend and will continue to do so," spokesman Cory Fritz said in an e-mail.
Past House speakers - the officeholder is second in line for the presidency after the vice president - have used government jets.
Boehner passed up a chance to fly to Wednesday’s service on Air Force One with President Barack Obama and other government officials so that he could attend a Washington, D.C., reception for Maria Cino, who is seeking to become chairman of the Republican National Committee, Politico reported Wednesday.
Aides for Boehner told Politico he would complete his remarks before Obama’s speech at the Giffords memorial.