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Pope Watch: The Year’s Top Codel Starts Now

You’ll have Pope Francis to thank for a shortened period of legislating next week — and for an exception to new limitations on members’ overseas trips imposed by the sequester.

House votes are sure to be called off Tuesday, the day of the papal inaugural mass at the Vatican, and more than a dozen lawmakers are likely to be sent there as the official congressional delegation.

Politically, there are two very simple rationales for scrambling the pre-recess schedule and spending more than is in the budget on a quick round trip to Rome: The American public won’t mind, and the members of Congress will demand it.

Not only does Roman Catholicism remain the plurality denomination in the United States (25 percent), but it’s also the most widely embraced religion on Capitol Hill: 166 members of the 113th Congress, or 31 percent, profess an allegiance to the pope. That number is actually a dozen larger than when Benedict XVI became pontiff eight years ago.

And catholicism, the religion of Speaker John A. Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, affords one of the main demographic and cultural connections between members of the two parties, both in Washington, D.C., and across the country, even though Republicans and Democrats generally cite very different aspects of their faith in explaining their views about public policy.

Within minutes of each other, President Barack Obama (who carried the Catholic vote by just 2 points last fall) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., framed their congratulatory statements on the papal election in starkly different ways. Obama hailed the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as “a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us.” The GOP leader praised him as “a voice of clarity and force on the great moral challenges of our time.”

There looks to be ample evidence to support both descriptions. So began the intense internal lobbying for a place in the year’s most prestigious Codel; it was under way just as soon as the 76-year-old Francis appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in his brand new white cassock. For a couple of days, at least, the names of the chosen will be as secret as the results of the early voting inside the conclave of cardinals.

There are some early front-runners: As last year’s GOP vice-presidential nominee, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin would offer obvious prestige to the group, although he may choose to stay home because of his obligations to manage the House budget debate later in the week. Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, who’s reportedly been under consideration to become U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, is an obvious choice for the Democrats. Both were in the delegation of 21 House members who attended the papal installation in 2005 — no senators went back then — and eight of those lawmakers remain in office.

But what if the leadership is looking to assemble a group that reflects the unique circumstances of this new papacy? There hasn’t been a Francis in the House since 1994 (he was a Democrat from Indiana) or a Jorge since 1973 (he was a resident commissioner for Puerto Rico). There’s no Argentinian-American in Congress and only one native from anywhere in South America: Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, who was born in Peru only because his dad was working there.

On the other hand, Francis is the first Jesuit pope, and at least five House members spent parts of their formative years in the company of that order — none more so than freshman Democrat Juan C. Vargas of California, who for a time was in training to be a Jesuit priest.

It’ll be a whirlwind trip for half a second on TV and no face time with the world’s newest head of state. Still, it’s got to be better time spent than debating the rule on the budget resolution.

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