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Reading between Constitution's lines

"They are steeped in Enlightenment classical culture. They want a reestablishment of Republicanism through acts of reason," he said. "This is deeply inconsistent with the rote reading of a text as if it were handed down from Mount Sinai."

Differing interpretations of the intentions of the Founders and the meaning of the text are virtually as old as the Constitution.

The document's genius, according to many scholars, is its often purposeful ambiguity - what Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale law professor and author of "America's Constitution: A Biography," called the Founders' ingenious establishment of a "common vocabulary for disagreement."

But some Democrats and constitutional scholars said the tea party has an atemporal view of the document that ignores the monumental changes of the Civil War, the New Deal and the civil rights era.

Ackerman said the events of the constitutional convention showed that the Constitution resulted from a "pro-tax rebellion" on the part of Federalists who thought the Articles of Confederation lacked enough power to raise taxes to pay the nation's considerable war debts.

Nadler agreed. "A lot of the tea party people, I wonder how many of them have read the Constitution," he said. "A lot of them, they seem to think the Constitution is the Articles of Confederation."

Nadler said he anticipates a raft of "idiotic amendments" from Republicans, such as an effort to allow states to nullify acts of Congress, that would blatantly violate the Constitution.

Suspicious and mocking as Nadler was of the Republicans' motivation for reading aloud what he affectionately characterized as "a long, dry, boring document with details about how Congress will have power to lay imposts and taxes," he agreed with other constitutional experts, and even the tea party, that there was a potential benefit.

"Maybe," he said, "it will be a little educational."

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