Francis leaves lawmakers starstruck
© Pool

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were starstruck by Pope Francis.

But the glow of the pontiff’s historic visit is likely to be short-lived, with lawmakers unlikely to heed Francis’s call for action on issues such as climate change, immigration and income inequality.


"While I respect the pope’s moral vision, how we respond to the world’s challenges is a matter of prudential judgment allocated to elected policymakers," said Rep. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerTrump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Bring back equitable access for the Digital Age: Congress must act House votes to impeach Trump MORE (R-Wis.).

While lawmakers weren’t shy about expressing disagreement with the pontiff, many said they appreciated the sincerity and thoughtfulness of Francis’s remarks.

Sen. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischGOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Senators condemn UN 'blacklisting' of US companies in Israeli settlements MORE (R-Idaho), who doubts that humans are causing climate change, said Francis framed his concerns about the environment in a way that appealed to everyone.

“Generally, what he said was that we should be good stewards of the earth,” Risch said. “Who could disagree with that?”

Many members of Congress reported having some difficulty understanding Francis, who spoke in English and not his native Spanish. Lawmakers did not have paper copies of the pope’s address to read along with as he spoke.

“I thought it was very inspirational,” said Rep. Cynthia LummisCynthia Marie LummisCheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Liz Cheney decides against Senate bid in Wyoming Liz Cheney leads GOP field by 20 points in potential Wyoming Senate race: poll MORE (R-Wyo.), who added that she had trouble hearing Francis due to his accent and where she was seated. “But we could catch some very key phrases that gave us a sense of the tone of the speech, which was lovely.”

The buzz consuming the Capitol ahead of the papal festivities receded to business as usual by early afternoon. Within hours after Francis left the building, the House began debate on legislation that would limit environmental reviews for construction projects and prevent federal agencies from including the social cost of carbon in environmental reviews.

And in the Senate, a government spending bill that would defund Planned Parenthood failed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

Francis referenced opposing abortion in his address.

“The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development," Francis said while also urging the abolishment of the death penalty.

Democrats who hoped Francis would discuss immigration during his address got their wish.

They repeatedly interrupted Francis’s speech with applause during the remarks on immigration, particularly when he said: "We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners."

Most Republicans refrained from clapping at that line, with exceptions such as GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCheese, wine importers reeling from Trump trade fight Peace Corps' sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback Lawmakers raise concerns over Russia's growing influence in Venezuela MORE (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants.

Francis further invoked the “golden rule” while urging “compassion” for immigrants: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Such a high-profile megaphone felt like a boon for Democrats such as Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.), who has repeatedly taken to the House floor to denounce Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Gov. Ron DeSantis more popular in Florida than Trump Sotomayor accuses Supreme Court of bias in favor of Trump administration MORE for his controversial remarks about Mexicans.

“I try to push back on Donald Trump and others who attack Latinos and immigrants or women or Muslims or the poor — sometimes on the floor of the House. But I cannot speak as simply and as powerfully as the pope can,” he said.

“If Congress had a daily reminder of the Golden Rule, this would be a better country.”

There was some question ahead of the pope’s visit that lawmakers might not behave themselves in the chamber, even with the nation and the world looking on.

State Department protocol had advised lawmakers that a handshake would be an acceptable way to greet a pontiff — but only if he initiates it. 

Lawmakers tend to stake out seats on the coveted center aisle for major joint addresses so they have a chance to shake hands and hug the president or foreign head of state on live national television. But they refrained from doing so as Francis walked past, contenting themselves with friendly smiles and nods from the pope.

Francis only stopped to shake hands with Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryJohn Kerry: Democratic debate 'was something of a food fight' Kerry responds to Trump accusation he violated Logan Act: 'Another presidential lie' Mellman: Primary elections aren't general elections MORE on his way to the dais.

As the speech went on, however, it began at times to resemble a State of the Union address, with partisan applause and outbursts. At one point, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) jumped up and cheered when Francis urged abolishing the death penalty, even as she sat back down with a slightly sheepish grin.

Only one member of Congress made a show of boycotting Francis’s speech to protest his views on climate change, which the pope believes is caused by human activity. 

Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarOvernight Energy: Green groups to sue over Trump rollback of Obama water rules | GOP climate plan faces pushback from right | Bezos launches B climate initiative GOP climate plan faces pushback — from Republicans New Qatari prime minister means new opportunities MORE (R-Ariz.) said he had no regrets about skipping the speech, which he watched on television from his office. Gosar said in a op-ed last week that he wanted Francis to focus more on the persecution of Christians and religious liberty.

“No, I think I made my point,” Gosar said when asked if he wished he were in the chamber at any point during the speech. “My deal is his voice is more appropriate for the issue of religious tolerance and the sanctity of life.”

But for others, the speech was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they couldn’t miss. 

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Lobbying world Pelosi-Trump relationship takes turn for the terrible MORE (R-Ohio), who extended the invitation to Francis, may have been the most moved by the pope’s appearance.

The famously emotional Speaker became teary on multiple occasions during Francis’s visit, including a private meeting in his office and as Francis spoke to the crowd gathered on the West Front.

During his meeting with Francis, Speaker told the pope his staff urged him to wear a green tie. Francis, through an interpreter, told BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Lobbying world Pelosi-Trump relationship takes turn for the terrible MORE: "It's a tie with the color of hope."

"I need a lot of hope today," Boehner replied.

— Timothy Cama contributed.