- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Raucous cheers erupted Tuesday as Pope Francis set foot in the U.S. for the first time, kicking off a six-day, three-city American tour that promises to dominate the headlines and present politicians with the chance to bask in the “glow” of association with the popular pontiff.

President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and the couple’s two daughters, Malia and Sasha, greeted Francis moments after he landed. Service members rolled out the red carpet for the pope, who has earned a cultlike following around the globe and has energized liberal Catholics with calls to action against climate change and income inequality.

On Capitol Hill, where the pope is slated to deliver a first-ever address by the Catholic Church’s leader to a joint meeting of Congress, lawmakers vowed to forgo the usual silliness of dueling ovations between Democrats and Republicans, saying this speech transcends those kinds of displays.

“We actually hope that we can show a little more decorum to the pope than we sometimes do at State of the Union addresses,” said Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican. “It is our hope on this side of the aisle and the Democratic side of the aisle that we can listen to one of the most famous and one of the most respected voices on the face of the Earth with the respect and decorum that is due someone in his position.”

Dressed in a white cassock, Pope Francis descended from his plane to enthusiastic chants of “Welcome to the USA.” The crowd also roared with “We love Francis, yes we do, we love Francis, how about you?”

The pope stopped briefly to chat with several children, one of whom handed him a bouquet of flowers. He then walked across the tarmac while chatting with a smiling Mr. Obama.

Francis arrived after a stop in Cuba, where he met with President Raul Castro but came under fire for failing to give equal time to oppressed political dissidents. The Vatican played a key role in facilitating a diplomatic reboot between the U.S. and the communist island, ending more than a half-century of isolation.

The pope has personally praised the thaw in relations, angering conservative Catholics who remain bitterly opposed to the change in U.S. foreign policy.

On Wednesday, the pope will meet with Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and other administration officials in a series of meetings at the White House and will celebrate a Mass where he will canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan friar who founded many of California’s mission churches in the 18th century.

The pope will address Congress on Thursday and then travel to New York City, where he will speak to the United Nations on Friday. He will end his U.S. trip this weekend in Philadelphia, where he will participate in major church meetings.

The pontiff remains divisive in the political realm. Most Democrats are at odds with Francis over his stances against abortion and same-sex marriage, and Republicans are troubled by his call for drastic action to combat global warming and for redistribution of wealth to the poor.

Both sides of the aisle promised decorum when the pontiff speaks at the Capitol, where little else is considered off limits from politics.

“I would hope that if there’s applause during the speech, we can all applaud — not the up and down stuff,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told reporters. “I think that’s not a dignified way to conduct ourselves.”

But the political truce won’t last long. On Thursday afternoon, just hours after the pontiff’s address, the Senate is scheduled vote on a spending bill that would withhold some funding from Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the U.S.

Analysts said politicians of all stripes, including Mr. Obama, can benefit just by being associated with Pope Francis — but the benefits will fade when the pontiff returns to the Vatican, said David Rehr, director of the Advocacy in the Global Environment program at George Washington University.

“It gets [the president] a short-term political glow. Anytime anyone is standing next to the pope, it’s a positive thing,” Mr. Rehr said. “In terms of longer-term public policy impact I don’t think it really it turns into a concrete ‘Now we have five more votes on climate change, or we have a new bill introduced on income inequality.’ They expect the pope to raise the issues for the downtrodden and to be good stewards of the Earth, but it’s very short term.”

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