Lawmakers promise best behavior for Pope Francis's visit

Lawmakers are expected in the coming days to receive protocol guidance ahead of Pope Francis’s Sept. 24 address to a joint session of Congress.

The guidance comes amid fears that the first-ever papal address to Congress could spark a State of the Union-like atmosphere given the pontiff’s politics, where one-half of the chamber stands to cheer on the pope while the other sits on their hands, grim-faced.

Francis is famous for making political audiences uncomfortable, and his calls for global leaders to reduce inequality and to act on climate change might sound like an address by President Obama to some Republican lawmakers.

At the same time, the pope’s opposition to abortion rights could make some Democrats uncomfortable and lead to GOP cheers, especially given the charged debate over federal funding for Planned Parenthood that’s threatening to trigger a government shutdown at the end of the month.

Lawmakers interviewed by The Hill ahead of Francis’s visit predict nothing of the sort.

They insist Democrats and Republicans will be conscious to not politicize the speech, and say they will avoid the kinds of theatrics familiar to State of the Union audiences.

“Congress will be on its very best behavior on this occasion,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.).

Lawmakers anticipate they won’t applaud or cheer based on political preferences. 

“Showing any type of partisan division, that hadn’t even occurred to me,” remarked Rep. Joe WilsonJoe WilsonGOP fears next Trump blowup House GOP urges Obama to drop veto threat against defense bill Overnight Cybersecurity: Fight over feds' hacking powers moves to Congress MORE (R-S.C.), who famously shouted, “You lie!” after Obama, in an address to Congress, said his healthcare proposals wouldn’t apply to illegal immigrants.

Thousands are expected to visit Washington during the pope’s three-day visit, which will culminate with his speech to lawmakers. Capitol Police on Monday announced tight security measures, and the government will advise employees to telework from home to avoid traffic snarls.

It’s not just addresses by presidents that have caused partisan divisions to emerge in Congress — previous high-profile speeches by world leaders to lawmakers have sparked intense reactions in the past.

Most recently, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) used forceful gestures to highlight her displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress in March.

As Netanyahu criticized the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, Pelosi remained seated during standing ovations and made sure the people around her — and those watching from the press row — could see her disagreement.

When Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session in 1990, just months after his release from a South African prison, then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and then-Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) skipped the speech in protest.

Francis has a history of catching political audiences off guard.

In 2004, while serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis called for open political dialogue and accused the Argentine government of intolerance during an annual national Mass as then-President Néstor Kirchner sat in the audience. Kirchner broke with tradition and stopped attending the Mass after that episode.

And in 2014, Francis used his Christmas address to offer a scathing critique of the Vatican bureaucracy, saying that some senior members of the Catholic Church’s leadership suffer from a “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”

The State Department has outlined guidance for lawmakers meeting with the pope.

A handshake is considered acceptable, but only if the pope initiates it. 

Consequently, lawmakers who score seats along the center aisle will have to hold back and refrain from embracing Francis before the cameras like they might do with the president at a State of the Union address. 

The State Department further advises attendees in a papal audience to dress conservatively and in dark colors. Women’s shoulders and elbows must be covered, with hemlines falling below the knees. 

The dress code guidance is especially noteworthy for members of the House, whom Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has publicly admonished on multiple occasions for not dressing appropriately for votes.

Nonetheless, members of Congress say they are eager to be part of the papal audience.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) openly admitted that he often watches State of the Union addresses on television in his office or arrives to the House chamber late, unlike some lawmakers who reserve aisle seats with coats and purses hours ahead of time. 

That won’t be the case this time for Gutiérrez, who is Catholic. “I’m going to get here really, really early,” he said.