BERGOGLIO GIVEN PLATFORM BY CONGRESS
Iran and the Francis Effect…
Congress is giving the left-leaning Pope a platform ahead of a critical vote on the Iran nuclear deal.
Members of Congress trying to derail the Iran nuclear deal will have to contend with the “Francis Factor.”
By sheer scheduling luck — let’s just say it probably wasn’t what House Speaker John Boehner intended — Pope Francis will address a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24.
That’s a week after the Republican-led Congress is expected to vote down the nuclear agreement but probably ahead of a vote to override a presidential veto. The next day, Francis speaks at the U.N. General Assembly, whose timing means a slew of global leaders, many of whom favor the deal, also will be rubbing elbows with lawmakers in New York and Washington.
No one knows for sure what Francis will say, but he’s not shy about his opinions, and odds are that he will discuss his support for the Iran deal. If so, his remarks could prove the antithesis of the speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to Congress in March, which was aimed at galvanizing opposition to the deal.
As a result, the White House sees the pope’s visit as a blessing. It insists, however, that it won’t be giving Francis any talking points.
“It’s the pope. So I’m not going to try and divine — no pun intended — what he’s going to say,” a senior administration official said. Still, “the pope is an authoritative voice on this, so obviously the timing is fortuitous.”
Just how much influence Francis will have on lawmakers’ votes is hard to gauge.
First, it’s still possible that the first vote on the deal won’t even happen on that timetable, particularly if Senate Democrats successfully filibuster a vote. Second, the White House believes it has enough support to sustain a presidential veto of a vote against the agreement, so even a lawmaker who secretly backs the deal but politically can’t vote for it may not feel the need to change his stance between the first and second votes.
And third, how Francis frames the Iran section of his speech could be critical in how it is received.
Already on a range of issues, from the dangers of income inequality to climate change, the left-leaning pontiff has unsettled many American conservatives, including some who are running for president. If Francis gets too blunt, unhappy lawmakers could turn to arguments used against him in the past — saying he should leave politics to politicians and stick to matters of faith.
Stephen Colecchi, a top official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, predicted Francis would take a positive angle on Iran, “whether to speak words of encouragement for Congress to reconsider if the situation warrants that” or “gratitude if indeed Congress upholds the agreement.” He also batted down the notion that the pope should avoid so-called “political” matters.
“Concern for the poor and concern for peace are profoundly spiritual issues,” Colecchi said. “These are not optional issues. These are at the heart of the gospel.”
The pope’s visit has been planned for months and was built around the World Meeting of Families, a major Catholic gathering in Philadelphia.
Francis lands in D.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 22, after first visiting Cuba, whose recent detente with the U.S. he helped facilitate. The pope will meet with President Barack Obama that Wednesday, then speak to Congress the next day. After his Friday U.N. appearance in New York, Francis heads to Philadelphia, where his schedule includes a visit to a prison.
Boehner, who is Catholic and expected to vote against the nuclear deal, announced in February that Francis had accepted an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress during his U.S. visit, making him the first pope to do so.
When asked what topics the pope may mention in his address, the Republican speaker recently said, “Well, listen, there’s one thing we know about this pope: He’s not afraid to take on the status quo or not afraid to say what he really thinks.”
A number of Catholic organizations have been trying to ramp up support for the Iran nuclear deal, aiming to win over Catholic lawmakers in particular.
When asked about the pope’s influence on their thinking, aides to some of these lawmakers, such as senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), said only that they were still reviewing the agreement. Heitkamp’s office pointed out that she’s said she is “incredibly excited” about Francis’ visit.
Ambassadors from the five other countries who forged the deal with Iran alongside the U.S. have been meeting with American lawmakers to urge them to support the agreement. The U.N. General Assembly could draw an influx of heads of state to Washington during September, adding to the diplomatic pressure.
Netanyahu also will likely raise his objections to the agreement during his speech to the General Assembly. But he’ll have to contend then with Francis’ speech, as well as Obama’s.