WASHINGTON — Republicans made history Thursday by staging the first-ever reading of the entire Constitution on the House floor. But that record may come with an asterisk: Democrats asked why original sections that later were amended, including references to slaves, were left out of the recital, and lawmakers initially did not catch that a couple of key paragraphs were omitted when two pages got stuck together.
Disputes and glitches aside, Republican and Democratic lawmakers silenced their differences over what the words of the Founding Fathers mean for today's politics long enough to spend 90 decorous minutes reciting the venerable document.
The glitch was remedied several hours later when Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the organizer of the event, returned to the House floor to acknowledge that one of the readers had turned two pages at once, resulting in the omission of an Article IV section on the federal government protecting states from invasion and an Article V section on amending the Constitution. Goodlatte proceeded to read the missing words into the Congressional Record.
Some 135 lawmakers from both parties participated in the reading of the document approved in 1787 and in operation since 1789. Leading off was new House Speaker John Boehner, who recited the "We the People" preamble. He was followed by outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who read Article I, Section 1 that gives legislative powers to Congress.
The document, long a subject both of reverence and wrangling, has never been read in its entirety in the House, and the event, coming on the second day of Republican control of the chamber, was a nod to the tea partiers who returned Republicans to power.
Tea party backers often cited the Constitution in arguing that Washington is ignoring the limits of federal power outlined in the document.
Democrats went along, but before the reading started they asked why Republicans chose to omit sections, including those pertaining to slavery, that were later amended. In particular, they asked about the Article I, Section 2 clause that classified slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of congressional apportionment and taxation.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., asked why those elements of American history were being left out, "given the struggle of African-Americans, given the struggle of women."
"We fail to show the American people that imperfection is not to be feared and that our ability to constantly improve on what the Founders gave us is a blessing, not a reason for divisiveness," Black Caucus member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said.
Goodlatte said he and others had worked closely with the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service in coming up with the most accurate presentation of the Constitution. He noted to Jackson, son of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, that another pioneer of the civil rights movement, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., had been asked to read the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery.
The reading also skipped the 18th Amendment that was ratified in 1919 to institute prohibition of alcohol. That amendment was overturned in 1933 by the 21st Amendment.
The solemn occasion was briefly interrupted by a protester when Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., was reading the section of the Constitution that set out the eligibility requirements for the presidency. As Pallone read the words, "No person, except a natural-born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution," a woman yelled out "except Obama, except Obama!"
The presiding officer asked that she be ejected, and she was. Police later said Theresa Cao, 48, of New York, was charged with unlawful conduct and disruption of Congress.
So-called birthers claim President Barack Obama is ineligible for his office, contending there's no proof he was born in the United States. Some suggest he actually was born in Kenya, his father's home country. The Obama campaign provided a certificate of live birth in 2008, an official document from Hawaii showing the president's birth date, city and name, along with his parents' names.
Boehner told NBC News that he doesn't question Obama's citizenship. "The state of Hawaii has said that President Obama was born there. That's good enough for me," Boehner said in an interview that aired Thursday. As far as other lawmakers, he said, "it's not up to me to tell them what to think."
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During the reading of the Constitution, lawmakers lined up to take their turn at the podium, with Goodlatte generally alternating speakers between the two parties. Some got to read from profound sections that describe how the new American government was to be set up and what were the rights of its citizens. Others got more prosaic sections regarding the oversight of forts and dockyards or the prohibition on office holders receiving gifts from foreign princes.
The reading of one of the clauses most familiar to Americans, the Second Amendment provision on the right to bear arms, fell to freshman Republican Frank Guinta of New Hampshire.
For the first hour of the recital the Republican side of the chamber was full, while far fewer Democrats occupied the other side. After an hour, the number of Republican listeners also declined.