You can look but you better not touch.
That’s the commandment for members of the House of Representatives and the Senate ahead of Pope Francis’ unprecedented address Thursday morning to a joint meeting of Congress.
Francis will become the first pope to speak in the House chamber, an event that has lawmakers from Roman Catholic House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to freshmen backbenchers downright giddy with excitement.
But House and Senate leaders are imploring lawmakers to do something that’s proven difficult for them: Contain themselves.
No hand-shaking, no back-slapping and no chit-chit with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics as he makes his way into the chamber.
“Out of respect for the pope’s schedule and the expectation of a timely address, we respectfully request that you assist us by refraining from handshakes and conversations along and down the center aisle during the announced arrival of the Senate, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, U.S. Supreme Court, President’s Cabinet and Pope Francis,” Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter to rank-and-file lawmakers last week.
The letter ended by reminding recipients that Francis’ address “will be seen around the world and by many of our constituents.”
Keeping their hands to themselves will be an interesting exercise for a Congress where some members camp out for hours – often bringing the day’s work with them – to score coveted aisle seats in order to press the flesh with the president at a State of the Union address or with dignitaries invited to speak to lawmakers.
Aloso, emotions have been known to run high during special talks in the House chamber.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted “You lie” at Obama during a 2009 speech to Congress.
Pelosi was visibly upset on the House floor with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March during his speech to Congress, in which he railed against the nuclear deal with Iran forged by the Obama administration and five world powers.
But House and Senate members insist they’ll be on their best behavior when Francis arrives.
We’ll follow the protocols of the House and act accordingly. All of us are well aware of those protocols, some of us have been to the Vatican, of course, and understand those protocols and celebrate those protocols
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who’s legendary for arriving hours early to get an aisle seat for State of the Union speeches, said he’s usually not an early-bird for other joint meetings of Congress. He said he’ll be happy to sit anywhere in the chamber to see and hear Francis.
“I really don’t care where I sit,” said Engel, who’ll also attend a Mass Francis will conduct Friday at New York’s Madison Square Garden. “I’m not worrying about shaking his hand or anything like that. I just want to listen to him and I think it will be a memorable experience for me.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, another regular aisle-seeker, said she’ll be thrilled “just to be in a seat of any kind just to be present at that historic moment.”
Congressional leaders are leaving nothing to chance.
They have organized a protocol posse of sorts, about 16 manners-conscious lawmakers (eight Democrats and eight Republicans) who’ll occupy two seats at the ends of some rows along the center aisle of the House chamber. Their mission: to keep more excitable colleagues from reaching out and trying to touch the pope.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the leaders will have no worries about senators rushing grab the pope’s hand or snap a quick selfie with him. That’s a House thing, he said.
“You’ve seen them line up there, they’re over there before we get over there,” Grassley said. “We come in later. They don’t bother to shake hands with us.”