MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Well, it was long delayed and over budget, but the Capitol Visitor Center finally opened today. It is the largest expansion ever of the U.S. Capitol. It's a spacious underground hall designed as a staging ground, educational center, and rest stop for the three million visitors who come every year to see Congress in action. NPR congressional correspondent Debbie Elliot attended opening day.
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT: This was a full-tilt Capitol ceremony, with congressional leaders lined up on stage in a grand hall and members of the U.S. Armed Forces presenting the colors. But what this visitor center is really about is the growing number of people who want to see the U.S. Capitol. Until now, they've had to petition their lawmakers for a tour or wait in long lines outside in the elements. House Majority Leader Harry Reid took a break from the pomp and circumstance to describe the situation.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): In the summer time, because of the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol.
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Senator REID: And that may be descriptive, but it's true. Well, that is no longer going to be necessary.
ELLIOTT: After the ceremony, Florida Republican John Mica stood in the new emancipation hall, a two-level underground space adorned with state's statues and named in remembrance of the slaves who built the Capitol. Mica had been pushing for a Capitol visitor center for 16 years.
Representative JOHN MICA (Republican, Florida): This is the first addition in the history of the Capitol for the public and the people, not the members of Congress, and it's turned out absolutely magnificent.
ELLIOTT: Much like the Capitol itself, the center has been plagued with cost overruns and delays. What started as a $265 million project slated to open in 2005 ended up costing $621 million. Part of that higher cost came from new security measures after 9/11.
And it's not all for visitors. Lawmakers have new state-of-the-art meeting rooms and a congressional auditorium set up to be used as a House or Senate chamber if needed. But tourists don't get to see those sections.
Unidentified Woman: Welcome to the exhibit hall. We do not allow photography of any type in this area, but we do hope you enjoy it.
ELLIOTT: This afternoon, taxpayers got their first glimpse of the new public wing of the Capitol.
Mr. JOSEPHUS NELTSON: Very impressive. Monumental.
ELLIOTT: Josephus Neltson(ph) works next door at the Library of Congress and was among the first to see the new center. He was struck by the massive skylights.
Mr. NELTSON: You stand down, and you look up, and you see the dome of the Capitol. Quite a monument to American ingenuity and our sense of what democracy is supposed to be.
ELLIOTT: Not everyone was so impressed. Margot Reid(ph) of Washington D.C. was a Capitol tour guide 25 years ago. She liked the interactive historical exhibits but not the space itself.
Ms. MARGOT REID (Former Tour Guide, The Capitol): It's a little too grand and hard for me. But one person's view. For others, that grandness may signify something terrific about the strength of the democracy. But architecturally, I wasn't that thrilled.
ELLIOTT: But she admits it will serve a purpose.
Ms. READE: You know, we needed a warm, comfortable space with bathrooms and food. So I think that is a great gift to the American public.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.
NORRIS: And you can see photos of the new visitor center at npr.org.