Pope's activism sets stage for awkward visit to Capitol Hill

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Congressional Republicans say they are ready to welcome Pope Francis to Capitol Hill this fall — even if he uses part of his speech to challenge them on issues like climate change or income inequality.

Francis’s climate change encyclical last week was just the latest example of his willingness to wade into contentious political debates, often with positions that seem to fall on the liberal side of the spectrum.

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The pope’s nods to progressive politics have put some Republicans in an awkward spot. While many are Catholic and conservative, they are loath to be seen as criticizing the head of the church.

“I think all of us respect [Francis] for his religious station and his religiosity,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who is a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s climate change policies.

“I don’t think that transfers over to a complicated secular scientific question like we’re dealing with here. I think we’re going to look more to the people who have spent their lifetimes studying these things, both pro and con, more so than any religious leader.”

Francis is set to address Congress in September, presenting him with an enticing opportunity to press his case to lawmakers on a host of hot-button issues.

The pope’s critique of capitalism has already earned him scorn from the right. After a 2013 apostolic exhortation, Rush Limbaugh called the pope a “Marxist.”

Francis ventured into another charged debate this week by labeling gun manufacturers as unchristian. The Vatican also recognized the state of Palestine, an affront to American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Depending on the content of his speech, the pope’s address to Congress could create some uncomfortable moments for Republicans and Democrats alike, particularly if applause starts to break down on partisan lines.

No matter what subject he chooses, lawmakers say the pope probably won’t change many minds in the chamber.

“There will be a lot people wanting him, ‘Oh, this will be his opportunity to come and lecture the Republicans on climate change,’ and probably some our side will say, ‘Oh, this will be his opportunity to come and lecture the Democrats on abortion,’” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “My guess is he’ll strike some different balance than that.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said Democrats have been selective in what they take from the pope’s encyclical, leaving out the anti-abortion message Francis built into his defense of nature.

“What I have requested is that when the pope does come, he focus on those things that are infallible and are not politically-based or based on basic human concerns,” Huelskamp, a Catholic, said.

A week after the pope released his climate change call-to-action, the reaction in Washington has amounted to a one-way spin war waged by Democrats and activists.

Obama administration officials from the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to the Surgeon General have lauded the encyclical, and Democrats still hope the popular pope will move the needle on the environment.

But Republicans have shrugged it off as, at best, a powerful moral document that will nevertheless have little bearing on the climate debate in the United States.

“Do I think it’s going to change basic partisan alignments and attitudes? Probably not,” Cole said of the speech. “But do I think he is wise enough and astute enough to find some context in which what he has to say will have some impact? Yes I do.”

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE (R-Ohio), who is Catholic and invited Francis to address Congress, said he respects the pope’s “right to speak out” on climate change, but demurred on whether the encyclical would spur any action in the GOP-controlled Congress. 

“There's a lot of bills out there,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE said. “I'm not sure where in the process these bills may be.”

Other Republicans said they are curious to hear what message the pope brings to Congress as they battle to stop Obama’s climate change regulations.

“I know the question is, ‘Will he bring this up when he comes to speak to us in September,’ so it will be interesting to look forward to,” Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) said after a press conference about a bill repealing an EPA power plant regulation.

“We need to do everything we can to protect the environment, certainly, but at the same time, we have to protect Americans, we have to make sure that they are receiving affordable energy sources, and not moving forward with power grabs such as this EPA regulation.”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' Fifteen years since pivotal executive order, STORM Act could help fight terror finance MORE (R-Fla.), a Catholic and presidential candidate, told Florida reporters last week that Francis is a “moral authority and as a moral authority, is reminding us of our obligation to be good caretakers of the planet.” 

But at the same time, “I’m a political leader and my job as a policymaker is to act in the common good,” he said. “And I do believe it’s in the common good to protect our environment, but I also believe it’s in the common good to protect our economy. There are people all over this planet and in this country who have emerged from poverty in large respect because of the availability of affordable energy.”

Other Republicans are excited for the September speech and eager to see the pope in person.

Sen. John HoevenJohn HoevenOvernight Defense: White House threatens to veto Gitmo bill GOP senators fight female draft in defense bill Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention MORE (R-N.D.) said, “We always welcome the pope when he comes to this country and we’re looking forward to hearing from him.” Cole said Francis has “created a problem for every politician in America” because of the high demand for guest tickets to the speech.

Some Catholic Republicans said the presence of lawmakers might actually take something away from Francis’s message.

“I think he’s an important figure in the world, and so, certainly for Catholics, people will want to understand his viewpoints and will certainly listen very carefully to his viewpoints,” Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteSenate rivals gear up for debates WATCH LIVE: Warren campaigns for Clinton in NH Green group endorses in key Senate races MORE (R-N.H.) said. “He’s our religious leader, and so I think he will offer a very important perspective. He’s certainly an opinion-maker on issues.”

“I don’t think we should politicize an encyclical from His Holiness,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said. “I think we should learn from it and have it influence our policy, but also influence our dialog. … I think we’re all talking about it, so by definition, it has.”

— Timothy Cama contributed to this report.