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What began as a largely symbolic Republican exercise to read the Constitution aloud on the House floor Thursday ended up being a largely bipartisan event.
The hourlong reading was peppered with just one protest from the visitors’ gallery and a handful of applause lines. Republicans had allowed for the reading — the first ever on the House floor — under their rules package, which was adopted Wednesday.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who led the effort, called Members to the podium by name to read a line or section. There were just a few hiccups in the process, including when one Member accidentally skipped over some of the pages. Goodlatte later returned to the floor to make sure it was read aloud.
While most of the lines appeared to be assigned at random, some were more tied to the background of the Member. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader of the civil rights movement, recited the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. Lewis’ line drew a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.
Members from both sides took part, but not before Democrats complained that Republicans chose not to read the original version of the Constitution, which among other things includes the clause classifying slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of Congressional districting and taxation.
“Many of us don’t want that to be lost upon reading of our sacred document,” said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and son of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He later added: “This is very emotional for me.”
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) also brought up concerns about not reading the original document and noted that Democrats were not told which version of the Constitution would be read on the floor. That comment drew loud groans from the GOP aisle.
After that floor exchange, newly installed Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) kicked things off by reading the Constitution’s first line, which was written in 1787.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” Boehner read.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) followed Boehner, then came other GOP and Democratic leaders. Both Republicans and Democrats paged through pocket-sized copies of the Constitution while they waited to recite their lines, and some Democrats joined a few Republicans in listening to the entire floor recitation.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) was interrupted while reading Article 2, Section 1 dealing with natural-born citizens from an Asian woman in the visitors’ gallery who yelled out, “Except Obama! Except Obama! Help us Jesus!”
There was much hype leading into Thursday’s reading. Still, floor attendance was relatively low by the time Members finished reciting the Constitution’s last line.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who said he plans to introduce a resolution later this week to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, hoped to read the section in Article 1 that deals with the prerogative of the Congress to enter into and get out of war.
“I think it’s healthy that we reference the Constitution in our work,” the Ohio Democrat said.