By Ross Colvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - How much would you pay for a front row seat to history?
Tickets for the swearing-in ceremony of Barack Obama, who will become the United States' first black president on January 20, are already being advertised for thousands of dollars.
There's just one small problem: the tickets are not publicly available, at least not yet. They will be released to the public only in the week before the ceremony, says the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
The committee is outraged that the tickets are being advertised for sale on online auction site eBay and other websites since they are meant to be free. One senator is even drawing up legislation to outlaw their sale.
EBay spokeswoman Nichola Sharpe said eBay officials met members of the committee on Wednesday and agreed to withdraw all ads for inauguration ceremony tickets.
EBay is currently advertising two tickets with a starting bid of $10,000, while online ticket brokers stubhub.com, a unit of eBay, and stagefront.com are advertising tickets between $1,400 and $2,350.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to converge on Washington to watch Obama take the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and address the nation after one of the longest and hardest-fought presidential campaigns in history.
Organizers say there is unprecedented enthusiasm for the ceremony itself as well as the balls and parties throughout Washington in the days surrounding it.
Some 240,000 tickets will be distributed through the offices of U.S. congressmen and senators for the swearing-in ceremony itself. Many will be given out only the day before to minimize the possibility of people selling them and for security reasons.
"This is an event that has been paid for by Congressional appropriation. It is wrong to turn around and sell those tickets. We believe it violates the spirit and intent of the inauguration," Carole Florman, the committee's communications director, told Reuters.
Californian Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce and pass legislation during next week's lame duck session of Congress making it illegal to sell the tickets, an aide said, although she has not said how that would be enforced.
"This inauguration will be the major civic event of our time, and these tickets are supposed to be free for the people. Nobody should have to pay for their tickets," Feinstein said.
Danny Matta, owner of online ticket broker greatseats.com, decried Feinstein's planned bill as an attack on capitalism.
"This is America. If somebody does have a ticket and wants to sell it why should they be restricted? We are not talking about guns or illicit drugs," he said.
Economists predict the United States will be in deep recession by the time Obama takes office. But businesses and would-be entrepreneurs are hoping to make money -- a lot of money -- from record crowds expected in the city.
"We're going to see a jump in tourism at a time when the economy is going south," said Bill Hanbury, the city's tourism chief, whose staff has been handling 200-300 calls per day.
Most of the capital's hotels are already booked, with some even offering special inauguration packages costing $100,000 and upward, while some residents are renting out their houses and apartments for astronomical amounts for inauguration week.
In upmarket Georgetown, a one-bedroom apartment is being advertised for $8,000 while a six-bedroom townhouse in the Virginia suburbs is going for $25,000.
All of this just a week after Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, beat his Republican rival John McCain in their race for the highest office in the land.
Emily Durso, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, said even the excitement around the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993 was nothing like this. "It will be nothing like we have ever had before," she said.
"Here we are a week after the election and the city is largely booked. That is highly unusual," said Durso, whose association has 96 hotels with 26,000 rooms.
(Editing by David Storey)