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Members Will Be Blocked 2 Ways From Touching Pope Francis (Video)

Reid and other congressional leaders will do all they can to keep Pope Francis on schedule. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Reid and other congressional leaders will do all they can to keep Pope Francis on schedule. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Too many members cannot be trusted to behave themselves when Pope Francis comes to the Capitol, the congressional leadership has decided. And so, to enforce decorous discipline, some extraordinary measures are being readied.  

Each party is assembling teams of lawmakers to essentially act as blocking tackles, willing to restrain any of their colleagues intent on trying to reach out for a papal touch as he walks onto the floor of the House.  

And after the historic speech, the doors to the cloakrooms and the hallways will be blocked — and in some cases, locked — to prevent lawmakers from leaving the chamber for perhaps half an hour, until Francis has appeared on a West Front balcony to greet the ticketed throng and then departed the Hill by motorcade. Roll Call Presents: Pope Francis’ Address to Congress Promo

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Those over-the-top precautions are a reflection of the unique protocol, security and political concerns attendant to the first papal address to a joint meeting of Congress. It has come to resemble a state visit, State of the Union address and presidential inaugural rolled into one.  

Down-to-the-minute preparations for the papal visit, which is supposed to begin at 9:15 a.m. Thursday and be done 105 minutes later, have created space for some unusual bonding among the bipartisan congressional leadership and their most trustworthy aides.  

All of them are on the same page about bending over backward to accommodate the Vatican’s expectations, which can be summarized as “Look, but don’t touch,” lest Congress drive its record-low public approval even lower by coming across as collectively preening and boorish before a global television audience.  

The first manifestation of that was last week’s “courtesy notice” delivered to all senators and House members, over the signatures of the top four leaders, offering this behavioral guidance: “Out of respect for the pope’s schedule and the expectation of a timely address, we respectfully request that you assist us by refraining from handshakes and conversations along and down the center aisle.”  

But the bosses are assuming their ask is going to be ignored — by the most fervently faithful Catholic lawmakers, who won’t be able to risk trying to kiss the papal ring or touch the hem of his cassock, as well as by many of the most publicity-driven members, desperate to make it into the same TV frame as Francis and get photographed glad-handing or even hugging him.  

This is where the sort-of reverse congressional escort committee comes in. Posting the Capitol Police or Swiss Guards in the aisles would look awful, so leadership is looking for about 50 members known for their patience and institutional good manners. On the promise they’ll keep their hands to themselves, they’ll be assigned to wear dark colors (with hems below the knee for women) as papal protocol dictates, show up when the doors open and fill the three chairs on either side of the aisle in each of the chamber’s eight rows of fixed seating.  

The aim is to create a physical zone of restraint between the pope and those who might invade his personal space. In other words, Democrats are telling the likes of Reps. Eliot L. Engel of New York and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, and Republicans are telegraphing to folks such as Reps. Billy Long of Missouri and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, that their well-honed spot-saving tactics for presidential appearances won’t work for this event.  

What to do, then, if there’s no point in jostling for a nanosecond of face time with the guest of honor? Smartphone selfies, flash photography and cheering by the members are also being vigorously discouraged. But the Vatican has relented and decreed that a standing ovation remains appropriate while Francis makes his way to the well and then ascends the rostrum.  

After that, genuine silence — not so much as an audible “amen” — will be expected from every corner of the chamber. This is not only to allow Francis to deliver his speech on a tight timeline (and in a language in which he’s not fluent) but also to prevent any of the applause-on-one-side, silence-on-the-other presidential address ritual if he opines in his halting English on topics that divide the parties. While all the players know whatever he says will immediately get filtered through the lens of domestic policy standoff, they are working to create an atmosphere that transcends politics until the last possible moment.  

The pope’s schedule is a tight one. To boost the odds he’ll stay on it, he’s likely to avoid the lawmakers altogether after his address and exit through the Speaker’s Lobby. While the members (and the holders of the coveted seats in the visitors’ gallery) remain on lockdown, Francis will pass through Statuary Hall, where he can get glimpsed by the former members and other second-tier dignitaries who have been watching on TV.  

His next stop will be back in the office of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, with whom he will have met one-on-one before the speech. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will join them for a few minutes.) From the Speaker’s Balcony, Francis will greet the crowd and a microphone will be available in the expectation he’ll talk for about five minutes.  

And then, precisely at 11 a.m., the pope is supposed to get into his car and head to the next stop: St. Patrick’s at 10th and G streets Northwest. It’s the oldest Roman Catholic parish in the city, created in 1794 to serve the mostly Irish immigrant craftsmen building the Capitol and the White House. Sixty parishioners chosen by lottery, plus 250 clients and volunteers from the downtown outpost of Catholic Charities, have been promised face time.  

During his first 30 months as the global leader of the church, Francis has been much more inclined to initiate physical contact with crowds of the impoverished faithful than with members of the powerful political elite. So it will be little surprise if he literally touches more of those lives downtown than he does on Capitol Hill.

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