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As pope visits divided Congress, lawmakers to hear what they want to hear

Spectators wave to Pope Francis during a parade on the streets around the White House in Washington, DC.

Spectators wave to Pope Francis during a parade on the streets around the White House in Washington, DC.

(Astrid Riecken / Getty Images)

John A. Boehner was just a lower-level congressman when he first invited a pope to address a joint meeting of Congress.

Two decades and several letters to the Vatican later, Pope Francis became the first to accept.

As the pontiff makes history Thursday by becoming the first leader of the Catholic Church to deliver a speech before Congress, lawmakers are calculating how the message from the popular pope may help -- or hurt -- their own political livelihoods.

Boehner, a Catholic who has risen to become Speaker of the House, will host a pontiff whose views are often markedly at odds with the Republican Party that Boehner leads in Congress.

On issues of climate change (“a global problem with grave implications”) and income inequality (“such an economy kills”), Francis has more kinship with the Democratic side of the aisle.

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At the same time, Democrats who favor same-sex marriage and abortion rights may see their attachment to the church leader challenged by his opposition to both.

“Well listen, there’s one thing we know about this pope. He’s not afraid to take on the status quo or he’s not afraid to say what he really thinks,” Boehner said earlier this year when asked about the policy differences. “And I can tell you this: I’m not about to get myself in an argument with the pope.”

In a preview of how he may try to bridge the divide, Pope Francis’ remarks Wednesday at a White House welcome ceremony suggested he will not refrain from tough topics as he appeals for broader discourse that may challenge both partisan sides.

“During my visit, I will have the honor of addressing Congress, where I hope, as a brother of this country, to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation’s political future in fidelity to its founding principles,” Francis said.

In Congress, 30% of the lawmakers are Catholic, but they have -- mostly -- vowed to leave politics aside and take their seats for this moment in history. Only one, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, a Catholic, has declined to attend in protest of Francis’ climate change views.

Congressional leaders nudged their colleagues to maintain decorum -- without all the partisan standing and applauding that leaves lawmakers jumping to their feet or sitting on their hands during a presidential state of the union address in the chamber.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader, acknowledged “we may have some different opinions,” but he said Republican senators were looking forward to welcoming the historic moment.

“There are also some things we hope that he can take away from visiting our country for the first time,” the senator added, calling the American free-enterprise system “the greatest anti-poverty force that the world has ever seen.”

As the pope speaks to Congress inside the House chamber, big video monitors will broadcast his address to an estimated 50,000 people expected to gather outside on the Capitol’s West Lawn. The pope will later greet the crowd briefly from the Speaker’s balcony.

Tickets have been in steady demand. Lawmakers received one guest ticket each for both the chamber and the West Terrace; representatives had 50 to give away for the lawn, while senators had 200 lawn tickets to distribute.

Lawmakers’ guests often reflect their political sensibilities. Boehner has invited former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife, Calista, as well as students from Catholic schools like the one he attended growing up in Ohio. On the other side, one of the guests of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be immigration reform advocate Astrid Silva.

As the speaker faces his own political challenges as Congress heads toward another possible federal government shutdown, Boehner was hopeful the pope’s visit would resonate.

In an interview with his hometown Cincinnati Enquirer, the speaker said he hoped the moment he worked so long to create “will awaken the Congress and awaken the American people to our higher callings.”

For the latest from Congress and 2016 campaign follow @LisaMascaro

For more, go to www.latimes.com/politics


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