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After closing for 2 years, tours begin at the U.S. Capitol


On Monday, we stopped by the U.S. Capitol Building to join in as the doors were reopened to the public for the first time in over two years.

We're standing now in the Capitol Visitor Center, which opened up in 2008 and wound up costing over $620 million. The whole idea behind it was that it was supposed to be a place where the public could come through and have access to the Capitol and have a chance to kind of learn about democracy and progress. It has been closed for more than two years because of the coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, public access to the seat of American democracy was part of the beating heart of the Capitol. An average of 3 to 5 million people visit the building each year. The tour leads up a big flight of stairs to the Capitol Rotunda, where we met Jennifer Mitten (ph), who was visiting D.C. with her family.

JENNIFER MITTEN: We are here on spring break with my daughters. My husband and I are from Indianapolis, Ind. My daughters are 12 and 10. And I also brought my in-laws from Texas. So we're getting our VIP tour of the Capitol, and we got to ride that little train over from the Senate building here.

SNELL: But mixed in with the paintings and the building's grandeur, there's a lot of discussion about how things have changed, from the violent attack on the Capitol on January 6...

MITTEN: No, my kids know about it 'cause we've already talked to them about it.

SNELL: ...To coronavirus restrictions that made the building inaccessible.

MITTEN: And I just keep saying it's so sad. We used to just walk in there and...

SNELL: Yeah.

MITTEN: You know, you could make an appointment with your congressperson or your senator and go in that building. And it's just not the same D.C. experience.

SNELL: Samarna Wadhwa (ph) and her husband Rom (ph) were nearby, visiting from Houston, Texas. Their trip here was particularly meaningful. They just became citizens late last year.

SAMARNA WADHWA: We waited for 18 years from the time we entered U.S. to become citizens. It was a long journey.

SNELL: Wadhwa said it was hard to reconcile the images she saw on the news during the insurrection with the actual reality of being inside the Capitol building.

WADHWA: How it was possible to enter when there's so much of security - and we had a lot of questions in our mind, thoughts running across, flashes from the news channels.

SNELL: Nearby, Kevin Han (ph) from San Jose, Calif., was trying to get a perfect photo of the soaring rotunda.

KEVIN HAN: The grandness of it is really - I don't know. Like, you see it in videos and pictures, but you don't realize how awesome the architecture is.

SNELL: He was with his family, including his 9-month-old son, Kobe (ph), who was desperate to eat our microphone.


HAN: There's a NPR reporter that wants to meet you. Say hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Isn't that cool? It's so squishy.

HAN: Yeah. I'm sure he'll be interested in the history of the U.S. once he starts going to school and just show him the time we went to the Capitol building. And then if he wants to come back, we can take him back here.

SNELL: Moments like these are gradually becoming the norm again, writing new chapters in the U.S. Capitol's more than 220-year history.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTICE'S "VALENTINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Kathryn Fox