Asked when the process would end, Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, observed, “I think that we’re just a captive of the time here.”
Setting a brisk, modulated pace, Mr. Merlino and a small cluster of colleagues embarked on the reading marathon at 3:21 p.m., paging through the hefty stack of text. (For comparison, the sixth book in the Harry Potter series clocks in at 652 pages.)
Sometimes passing a small lectern back and forth across the dais, they sped through reciting the text to a largely empty chamber, speaking to a diligent carousel of stenographers, floor staff, the Democrat presiding in the chamber and Mr. Johnson, who had to remain on the floor — or find a like-minded Republican to spell him to prevent Democrats from stopping the process and moving on.
By 7:21 p.m., the group had reached page 219.
It was unclear what precedent there was for reading aloud such a substantial piece of legislation, according to the office of the Senate historian, as the Congressional Record does not indicate how much time is spent on the reading of bills.
The Senate has provided funds to employ at least one clerk since 1789, with close to a dozen people now sharing the responsibility of recording the minutes of the Senate, reading legislation, calling the roll and other procedural duties.
“The positions are throwbacks to the days before Xerox machines and the ready availability of hard copies, or now digital copies of legislation,” said Paul Hays, who served as the reading clerk in the House for nearly two decades in the 1990s. “You have to try to achieve a balance between sounding like you’re a robot and sounding like you’re an advocate.”
Having read everything from the impeachment resolution against former President Bill Clinton to a lengthy presidential message from former President Ronald Reagan that took about 35 minutes, Mr. Hays acknowledged that a straight reading was perhaps not conducive to full comprehension.