Updated 1:33 p.m. | House lawmakers still don't have a budget deal that would avert a government shutdown on Oct. 1, but so far there's only one main event on their schedule: the joint session of Congress with Pope Francis.
Anticipation is mounting for the pontiff's Thursday visit to Capitol Hill, with members scrambling to secure tickets for constituents and special guests. Demand for seating in the chamber and standing room on the West Lawn is so high that former members, who ordinarily have floor privileges for life, are being locked out of the event.
But not everyone is clamoring to hear the Vatican leader. In a sharp departure from the gushing enthusiasm from members on both sides of the aisle, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., announced last week in a blistering op-ed he was boycotting the address because media reports indicate Francis will not focus his remarks on "religious freedom and the sanctity of life."
"Media reports indicate His Holiness instead intends to focus the brunt of his speech on climate change — a climate that has been changing since first created in Genesis," Gosar wrote in his piece for TownHall.com . "More troubling is the fact that this climate change talk has adopted all of the socialist talking points, wrapped false science and ideology into 'climate justice' and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies."
In an interview with reporters a few hours after the op-ed was published, Gosar, a Catholic educated at Jesuit schools, reiterated his disappointment that the pope appears to be prioritizing discussions of climate change over "Christian persecution."
"If there's one person who can talk about this in Hell's Den, which is right here, it's the pope," Gosar said.
Asked how he could be sure of the substance of Francis' speech, given the Vatican's tight lid on the prepared remarks, Gosar was indignant: "I pretty much know where he's gonna go on this. And he's gonna talk about climate change."
If it turns out that the pope defies Gosar's expectations, then, the Arizona Republican said, "maybe then I influenced it."
Gosar said he knew of "at least one other member" who plans to boycott the pope, but declined to provide his or her name to reporters.
A small survey of some of his colleagues, however, suggested Gosar was in the vast minority.
Fellow conservative Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said Gosar was welcome to skip the address if he wanted to, though he suggested he shared Gosar's concerns about Francis' opinions on climate change: "As far as I know the Bible does not specifically address the issue. It does say we should be good stewards of the earth, and I believe we are."
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said that while "a carbon tax probably wouldn't be a good idea for the pope to bring up," he wasn't terribly concerned about the substance of Francis' speech.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores, R-Texas, didn't mince words in expressing his disappointment with Gosar.
"I don't think that's appropriate," Flores told CQ Roll Call. "Look, when Democrats boycotted Prime Minister Netanyahu, I thought that was a bad decision. I don't think it's appropriate for Rep. Gosar to engage in the same behavior. I think we're better than that."
Flores said he expected Pope Francis to "challenge both sides" in his remarks, touching on sensitive issues that could irk Democrats and Republicans alike.
Meanwhile, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said he couldn't comment on what he thinks of the pope's upcoming visit or Gosar's decision to sit it out: "I don't have the advance knowledge of what's gonna be in his speech so I'm gonna wait until after his speech."
He did want CQ Roll Call to know, however, that he'll be bringing noted libertarian, Fox News judicial analyst and former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano, as his guest in the gallery.
Gosar said so far he hasn't distributed any tickets for the event to constituents or special guests.
Gosar's office clarified to CQ Roll Call on Sunday that it had given away 39 of its 50 allotted tickets to constituents to watch the pope's address on the West Lawn, and also to fellow House members who requested extra lawn tickets. Gosar's guest ticket for the House gallery is going to an Arizona resident who works in the tourism industry.