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How Pope Francis’ bipartisan call resonated in Congress

September 24, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
In an unprecedented address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis called for action on poverty, climate change, immigration and the refugee crisis. He urged the protection of human life at all stages, as well as the easing of partisan divisions. William Brangham offers a closer look at the pope’s speech and political director Lisa Desjardins shares reactions from Capitol Hill with Judy Woodruff.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Pope Francis wrapped up his historic trip to Washington, D.C., today. And it started with an address to Congress, one that was notable for his call to action on economic, political and social issues.

William Brangham begins our coverage.

MAN: Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It was the first time those words have ever been heard in the United States Congress.

Pope Francis entered to a standing ovation from the House and Senate, and members of the Cabinet.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

POPE FRANCIS: I am most grateful for your invitation to address this joint session of Congress in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Speaking slowly in English, the pontiff used the occasion to call for action on several issues from poverty to immigration. His appeal encompassed the thousands of refugees arriving in Europe, as well as Latin Americans coming to this country.

POPE FRANCIS: We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The pope also urged lawmakers to address climate change, and he called for the — quote — “global abolition of the death penalty.”

POPE FRANCIS: Every life is sacred. Every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Democrats applauded all of those things, while Republicans especially cheered when Francis alluded to the church’s longtime stance against abortion.

POPE FRANCIS: The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The pope didn’t directly address Congress’ current fight over funding for Planned Parenthood, but he did ask Congress to put aside its partisan divisions.

POPE FRANCIS: The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Afterward, as the pope moved outside, members of both parties were left to contemplate his message.

REP. JOYCE BEATTY (D), Ohio: He said to us that we have to do more than just possessing space. Translated to me, you have to come here and stand up for the issues. You have to take a position, and you have to make sure that you represent all the people and to keep that in mind.

SEN. DAN COATS (R), Indiana: I think people appreciated the fact that he recognized the difference of opinion here about how we should go forward, and he was just saying we should go forward, and there are ways to do it that won’t affect people — put people out of work. And I think we appreciated that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As for Francis, there was more cheering in store outside the west front of the Capitol, where thousands had gathered, hoping for a glimpse of the pope. There, he reverted to his native Spanish, delivering a prayer for the children in the joyful crowd below.

MARISA SWANSON, Attendee: This person that we read stories about and who is inspiring so many people, Catholics and non-Catholics, to see him in person, incredible.

MAN: He radiates happiness. He radiates happiness. He radiates peace, which I need — which I think is something we all need right now.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Later, the pope traveled to St. Patrick’s Parish Church, where he delivered a prayer and met with some of Washington’s homeless. That was the last event in the nation’s capital. After a short break, he flew on to New York, the next stop on his six-day U.S. tour.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Washington, D.C.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And our political director, Lisa Desjardins, was in the crowd on the west front of the Capitol for the pope’s speech, and she joins us now.

So, Lisa, it was a call to action in what the pope had to say. And we just heard both Republicans and Democrats saying they liked different parts of what he had to say. You have been on the Hill talking to people. What have you heard?

LISA DESJARDINS: You know, what I expected was to hear Republicans say, oh, this is a liberal pope, we agree with him on some things, not on others, but what I heard instead surprised me today. Both parties heard a challenge from the pope.

And Republicans in particular, for whom I think the pope challenged perhaps on immigration and perhaps on climate change — Democrats think so at least — Republicans say they heard some of their conservative viewpoints on those issues, Judy. They say, especially on the environment, that his tone indicated that he sees the United States as a leader, and especially a leader in technology, like renewable technology.

And I think that’s such a great example of what happened today or what might be happening from this speech. The pope’s words were so important and I think carefully chosen. He found perhaps areas where maybe Republicans and Democrats can find leadership room internationally, like on the environment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does that mean, whether it’s minds changing or agreement coming — he did talk about the polarization in Congress and in the country.

LISA DESJARDINS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that means it may lead to something?

LISA DESJARDINS: I don’t think positions will change on immigration. I don’t think they’re going to change on, say, Planned Parenthood, abortion or the death penalty.

But I do see a little room from the pope on the issue of climate and environment. And talking to Republicans today, they say perhaps, even if they don’t change, say, cap and trade — they’re not suddenly all going to be for something like that that they see as a problem — but perhaps there will be a dialogue where there’s more acknowledgment of a problem and a more careful look from those who don’t see a problem at what is going on in the environment.

Note the pope didn’t use the phrase climate change. Republicans like that. They say that gives them room for a dialogue on this subject and some say they think there could be a change in how they approach it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what about beyond politics, whether we want to talk atmosphere or whatever word you want to use? Did you sense, you know — listening to you and listening to what some of the members said, it sounds like they felt this was really something different happening. It wasn’t — clearly just another political speech.

LISA DESJARDINS: This is what’s remarkable. We have been around these members so often. They live in a strange world where they are the powerful, and they only are accountable every two or six years.

But I think what happened today, Judy, and even to a cynical reporter like me sometimes, is the pope made them more human. I heard from Dan Coats. He said there was a sense of reverence in the chamber. Debbie Stabenow said it was a sense of humility. I think he made these powerful people remember that they are human and that they have a human responsibility.

That’s what I heard again and again from members who don’t usually talk like that. That’s what was astounding. And they also sort of got rid of that layer of scriptedness that we’re so used to, even if for a few hours today. We will see how long it lasts. It was remarkable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maybe it will last.

LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right. I hope so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will see.

Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

LISA DESJARDINS: My pleasure.

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