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Hottest ticket in Washington? It’s for the Pope at Capitol

August 13, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s the hottest ticket in Washington, a chance to sit in the upper galleries of the U.S. House of Representatives for Pope Francis’ historic speech to Congress, and lawmakers are swarmed by requests to get them the coveted pass.

Congressmen and senators are struggling with an extraordinary demand — from spouses, family, friends, constituents — for the one ticket they get for guests for a chance to see and hear the 78-year-old Argentinian famed for making the comfortable uncomfortable address Congress on Sep. 24.

“We have more requests for this appearance than anything anybody can ever recall around here,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said weeks ahead of the event.

The first time a pontiff will be addressing Congress rivals a presidential inauguration and State of the Union address wrapped into one.

The president’s Cabinet, the diplomatic corps and members of the Supreme Court, six of whom are Catholic, are expected to join senators and House members in the seats on the floor of the chamber. The House recently took the unusual step of voting to limit the people who can sit in those prime seats, essentially barring former members.

That leaves the current 434 House members and 100 senators figuring out who to please with a gallery ticket and who they might upset. Whether a freshman on the job less than a year or a committee chairman with decades in office, lawmakers face the same rules as the president’s State of the Union speech — one guest ticket per lawmaker.

“I’ve been thinking long and hard about that,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “Turns out I know a couple of Catholics,” he said, laughing. “And this is a hard call.”

Republican Sen. Susan Collins, is giving her ticket to her mother, Pat, who headed a Catholic charity group in the state of Maine. Republican Congressman Leonard Lance faces a nearly Solomonic choice straight out of the Old Testament.

“Either my wife (Heidi) or my twin brother (James), but I’m a very popular fellow these days because of that one ticket that I get,” Lance said.

Several spouses have already claimed the seats.

“My wife is getting my ticket,” Congressman Dan Lipinski said of his wife Judy. “Even before I knew that the official announcement was made that the Pope was coming to speak to a joint session of Congress, I received the email from my wife saying, ‘Don’t give my ticket away.’”

Sen. Barbara Boxer avoided picking one family member and disappointing several others.

“I gave it to a nun who I love,” Boxer said.

The presence of nuns will be a reminder of the changes at the Vatican from Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, to the current pontiff. Under Benedict, the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns had come under scrutiny, accused of straying from church teaching. The nuns oversee much of the church’s work at hospitals and schools, and the issue roiled the church in the United States.

Earlier this year, under Francis, the Vatican said that it was ending its overhaul of the group, a quick resolution widely seen as an effort to quiet a dispute ahead of the pope’s visit.

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