K Street advocates will seek divine policy intervention when Pope Francis arrives on Capitol Hill.
Climate and labor activists, foes and supporters of abortion rights and lobbying groups from across the political and policy spectrum are planning public demonstrations and private meetings with lawmakers tied to the Catholic leader's visit in two weeks.
In short, the pontiff’s first-ever visit to the United States is turning into a major opportunity for the influence set. No matter the steep legislative odds that lobbyists and activists might face, they say the pope has the potential power to catapult their priorities to the top of the agenda in Washington and around the world.
“He’s going to be talking about things at a transcendent level, and he won’t be endorsing a particular piece of legislation,” said Steve Schneck, who heads the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. “That said, he’s already having an impact politically, and I think it’s just going to become more profound as we get closer to his arrival and the aftermath.”
The pope’s letter, or encyclical, calling for worldwide action on climate change, has infused an otherwise wonky, scientific debate with moral and spiritual language. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised the encyclical in June when it was released.
"We do not have the right, he said, to trample God’s creation," she said, referring to the pontiff's letter. "We really must listen to His Holiness as we go forward.”
The pope is also likely to speak about immigration, human trafficking and caring for the poor during his U.S. trip, Schneck said.
“He provides a kind of frame to view these issues that doesn’t fit our American politics very well but will result in a quickening of our attention to these issues,” Schneck said.
Advocacy groups will work to tailor the issues to their agendas.
Anti-abortion-rights advocates are planning demonstrations in Washington, where they will highlight their concerns over videos released this summer by abortion opponents showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the use of fetal tissue for research. Such groups also are pressing the Senate to bring up during the pope's trip a bill (S 1553) to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks gestation. The House passed its version of the bill (HR 36) this spring.
The social justice group Nuns on the Bus will embark on a tour through several states, including Missouri and Ohio, before parking in the nation's capital on Sept. 22, the same day Francis arrives. The AFL-CIO’s chief Richard Trumka, as well as aides to Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and President Barack Obama, will take part in briefings later this week at Georgetown University to spotlight policy issues relevant to the pope's visit.
Some of the biggest events will be tied to climate change. Activists are planning an inter-faith vigil on the night of Sept. 23 on the National Mall. Then, on Sept. 24, when Francis is on the Hill, numerous organizations are holding a demonstration also on the Mall dubbed a Moral Action for Climate Justice. They're planning a lobby day on Sept. 25.
“Those vigils are asking lawmakers to open their ears and eyes to what the pope is saying on climate and how it affects the poor,” said the Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham, an Episcopal priest who is founder and president of Interfaith Power & Light, a religious-based climate group. “We’ve been talking about how climate change is hurting poor people for years, and now the pope is saying it too, so we’ve got this wonderful platform to stand on.”
Francis not only raises the platform of the climate debate but the pontiff also changes the tone, advocates say.
“One real weakness of the American environmental movement as it stands is that most of the powerful institutions are aggressively secular and have not really connected with or involved the religious community and spiritual language,” said Brad Johnson, a climate activist who publishes and edits the policy-focused “Hill Heat.”
Although Johnson said he doesn’t expect Congress to move climate-focused legislation immediately after the pope’s visit, he does believe it could become an action-forcing event that helps “restart the engine of policy action” in Washington, D.C.
“There’s a real deeper potential in the pope’s visit: to allow our politics to arise to the challenge of this crisis,” Johnson added. “His moral, religious, spiritual approach is about touching someone’s soul, if not someone’s mind.”
Jeffrey Taylor, a former House Republican Hill aide who is now managing partner with the lobbying firm USGRI, said he expects the pope’s messages to resonate with government officials of all political stripes.
“No matter what he says, I think it will have some kind of impact on the people who are working in government and with government in the lobbying sector,” said Taylor, who is Catholic and considers himself politically conservative.
The pope’s visit likely will coincide with an ongoing debate over funding the federal government, as the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Conservative firebrands, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, may threaten a government shutdown over taking away federal money to Planned Parenthood that is used for family planning and cancer screenings, not abortions.
Policy insiders on all sides are wondering whether Francis will weigh into the federal funding debate in any way.
“Will he go as far to say there needs to be a greater government role in providing for the homeless and the poor?” Taylor asked.
Catholic University’s Schneck added that the pope’s visit might even compel lawmakers to arrive at a budget deal before the Oct. 1 deadline.
“I wonder if the fact that the pope is going to be here is going to make it a lot harder for people to accept shutting down the government where there are truly so many needed causes out there that require our legislature to act,” he said.
For more on the pope's lobby while in the United States, check out the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' website.