WASHINGTON — Read the Constitution lately? Congress did Thursday. Out loud, section by section, alternating by party.
It was the first time the 222-year-old document had ever been read on the House floor, congressional historians said.
It might also have been the first time that some lawmakers actually read or heard it in its entirety. Not all of them attended, and their numbers gradually diminished as the 90-minute exercise wore on.
The bit of political theater on the second day of the 112th Congress had been intended as a tribute by Republicans to the tea party movement. The groups' support in the November elections was pivotal to the Republicans winning control of the House.
"We're going to make the Constitution the center point," said newly installed GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, who read a section. "A lot of us felt that the Constitution hasn't been the guiding document for the last couple of years."
The tea party and many conservatives say their efforts to push Congress to slash spending and rein in government reflect the founding principles embodied in the Constitution. House Republicans already have pledged to require that all new legislation spell out what part of the Constitution gives lawmakers the authority to enact it.
"Capitol Hill is on notice," said Jen Ennenbach, a St. Louis Tea Party activist. "What happened in November was completely unprecedented. It was the people rising up."
Maybe. But few things scare politicians more than restive voters, particularly ones as angry and unpredictable as some tea party followers have proved to be.
Democrats, however, squawked at what to them seemed like the politicization of one of the nation's most revered texts.
So a funny thing happened on the way to what started out as a Republicans-only constitutional love-fest: It became a bipartisan celebration, appropriately muted. No bombast.
The only fireworks were brief and quickly extinguished, when a woman in the visitor's gallery shouted "except Obama" when the section on presidential eligibility was read. Guards removed her.
The reading wasn't without controversy. Democrats politely objected at the outset to the Republicans' plan to read the amended version of the Constitution.
That would leave out former sections, like Article 1 Section 2, which used to categorize slaves as three-fifths of a person. It boosted congressional apportionment for slave-holding states at the time, even though slaves couldn't vote.
"Given the struggle of African Americans, given the struggle of women, given the struggle of others to create a more perfect document . . . many of us don't want that to be lost upon the reading of our sacred document," said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.
Still, the simplicity of the act, a parade of faces of different sexes, origins and colors, an image that the framers possibly never envisioned, one by one standing in the well of the House and reading their two-century-old handiwork had a quiet kind of power.
"I think everyone should be familiar with the Constitution, so if reading it like this makes people more aware and familiar with it, then that's a good thing," said Susan Low Bloch, who teaches constitutional law at the Georgetown University Law Center. "But it's a very broad document. Just reading it and hoping you understand the 200 years of history behind it is a little naive."
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