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After wrangling, Constitution is read on House floor, minus passages on slavery
In a display of bipartisanship, he was followed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who tripped as she walked down the aisle but composed herself before reading Article I, Section 1, the passage that establishes Congress.
Then rank-and-file members stepped forward, in the order in which they were seated and alternating by party.
The grandeur of the moment quickly faded for the lawmakers, as the one-hour-23-minute exercise quickly drove many to boredom. Some who had been following with their government-issued pocket Constitutions started thumbing their BlackBerrys instead. They fidgeted in their seats. They scratched their heads and left to get bottles of water.
Freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) put on his reading glasses and followed along attentively with his pocket Constitution for the first hour or so, until it was his turn to read. He recited from Article I, Section 8: "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers . . .â"
Then, like many of his colleagues did after reciting their lines, West returned his Constitution to his suit pocket and walked out of the chamber.
The reading was interrupted when the clock hit 11:31. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) was reading from Article II, Section 1, the mandate that only a "natural-born citizen" may be elected president, when a woman rose in the public gallery and shouted: "Except Obama! Except Obama! Help us, Jesus! My name is Theresa . . .â"
Before the "birther" could say her surname, she was removed by police guards.
The new Republican House majority has made the Constitution a part of the daily rhythms of Congress. A new rule requires that every bill contain a statement by the lawmaker who sponsored it citing the specific constitutional authority to enact the proposed legislation.
As morning stretched into afternoon, an event designed to affirm Republican campaign promises to adhere to constitutional limits on government power was tainted by an emotional debate over the flaws in the Founding Fathers' original document.
The version read aloud was missing at least seven passages that remain etched in faded ink on the Constitution kept at the National Archives. Most are eye-glazing: procedures for electing senators, the workings of the electoral college.
But two, in particular, reflect a painful reality: The nation's founding document condoned slavery.
One, the "three-fifths compromise," counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of divvying congressional districts. The second dealt with runaway slaves - if they escaped to a free state, the Constitution required that they not be freed but rather "delivered up" to their owners.
Both were negated by the 13th Amendment but necessary to ratifying the original document, according to historians.
Richard Beeman, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the three-fifths compromise, in particular, was key to getting the Constitution approved because it brought in the support of Southern states.
"Reading the original language - it may not be comfortable to do it," Beeman said. "But it's a helpful reminder that these folks were living in an age very different from ours."
To some African Americans, skipping those passages was a stinging omission that overlooked the fact that under the original Constitution they would not have had a right to vote, let alone serve in Congress.
"It's sanitizing history," said Hilary Shelton, a senior vice president at the NAACP. "You take out the parts of it that aren't as attractive. . . . We've not always been right. But the thing that makes us great is we've always been willing to stand up to the challenges before us."
The House clerk's office does not have an official version of the Constitution it relies on. In the pocket Constitutions printed by the Government Printing Office and given out to congressmen, the three-fifths compromise language is still there, although marked with brackets and an asterisk.
There was a unifying moment on the issue of slavery. While Goodlatte did not assign members to read certain passages, he did arrange for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an African American hero of the civil rights movement, to recite the 13th Amendment. His solemn reading was the emotional high point of the day, drawing a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.
Part of the Constitution was omitted by accident when one reader turned two pages at once and a passage was skipped. Goodlatte returned to the House floor in midafternoon to read that section into the record. It guaranteed "to every state in this union a republican form of government."
By the time freshman Rep. Stephen Fincher (R), a preacher from Frog Jump, Tenn., concluded by reading the 27th Amendment, there were just a couple dozen lawmakers left. Half a dozen Republican congressmen were still waiting in line to read, but the Congress had run out of Constitution.
Goodlatte offered his apologies, the constitutional conservatives stuck their Constitutions back into their pockets, and the House moved on to its regular business.
And so ensued a partisan debate over the burning issue of the day, government spending, just as the Founding Fathers had intended.