On Capitol Hill, Lawmakers See Little Effect on Their Work From Pope's Climate Call

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By Anthony Adragna and Dean Scott

June 18 — Amid great international fanfare about the potential impact of Pope Francis' call to climate action, Democrats and Republicans in Congress were skeptical June 18 that the pontiff's encyclical would significantly boost the chances for U.S. legislative action on the issue.

Democrats were nearly unanimous in lauding the pope for taking on the issue and predicted his decision to frame climate change as a moral issue would carry heavy weight internationally. But they also doubted it would sway the minds of Republicans—many of whom deny that climate change is either occurring or is caused by human activity— to reconsider their positions.

Coalescing around a theme they have returned to time and time again in recent days, Republicans said the pontiff had the right to express his views on the climate issue but then declined to address the second part of his message, which challenged nations to act.

“Well, one thing we know about this pope is that he's not afraid to challenge everyone's thinking on issues, frankly, one way or another, and I admire his dedication to the poor and his work to protect the sanctity of life,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

“And frankly, I respect his right to speak out on these important issues,” Boehner said at his weekly press conference.

But asked if the pontiff’s message might spur congressional action, Boehner said he was unsure. “There’s a lot of bills out there. I'm not sure where in the process these bills may be,” he said.

Congress Not Expected to Tackle Issue 

Few, if any, observers seriously expect Congress to tackle broad actions on climate change anytime soon. Democrats blame Republican skepticism or outright denial of the problem for the inaction.

“It’s important that the pope does [weigh in],” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) told Bloomberg BNA. “I think the policy debate here, though, is going to be a challenge.”

Francis released the 183-page document June 18 urging a strong response to rising temperatures worldwide and linking the issue to a theme he has returned to repeatedly over the last two years: the need for a global response to poverty.

‘Pope's the Pope.'

Republicans almost universally declined to directly criticize the pope for wading into the contentious issue but also declined to say whether his message might sway their own views.

“Pope’s the pope,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told reporters. “He can talk about whatever he wants.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told Bloomberg BNA any message from the pope was likely to draw interest around the world. “It’s his right to express opinions and concerns,” Gardner said.

But one senator took exception to the idea that Pope Francis should insert himself in the climate debate.

“I think he ought to be focused on other issues,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Ky.) told Bloomberg BNA.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn't respond to a request for comment on the pope's encyclical.

Democrats See International Impact 

Though most Democrats were skeptical that the pope's encyclical would have any impact on Congress, many expressed optimism it would play a larger role in international negotiations under way to seal a global climate accord at end-of-year talks in Paris.

“As Pope Francis so eloquently stated this morning, we have a profound responsibility to protect our children, and our children's children, from the damaging impacts of climate change,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “And as we prepare for global climate negotiations in Paris this December, it is my hope that all world leaders—and all God's children—will reflect on Pope Francis's call to come together to care for our common home.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the encyclical a potential breakthrough in that push for global climate action.

“This church has not spoken on this subject, and so he is breaking new ground in terms of climate,” Pelosi said at her weekly press conference. “What he's talking about is new ground,” said Pelosi, who pushed a climate bill to passage in the House in 2009; the legislation died in the Senate in 2010.

Others Say Pope Could Sway Minds 

Outside of Congress, too, observers saw an encyclical that repeatedly returned to what most scientists say is a consensus that human activity contributes to climate change. The pope's words could potentially sway minds around the world, they said.

“I find that the pope's decision to start with empirical data … shows his and the church's deep respect for the world of science and the understanding that it is a domain of its own,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., said at a National Press Club forum. “And so he begins with what is evident data. It saves the encyclical from being dismissed as simply abstract reflection.”

Wuerl also said the copies of the encyclical he and other church leaders received came with a handwritten note from the pope, which highlighted the need for humans to “care for our common home.”

Rebuke to Some Candidates 

Other senior members of the Roman Catholic Church also took aim at Republican presidential candidates—like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.)—for questioning the pope's decision to wade into the debate.

“We talk about these subject matters not because we are experts on those matters; we talk about them because they concern the impact on our lives,” Cardinal Peter Turkson, a papal adviser who helped write the encyclical, said June 18 at the Vatican. “The Republicans and presidential figures who say they will not listen to the pope, it is [a] freedom of choice that they can exercise,” he said.

Bush said on June 17 that he wouldn't take his cues on how to address climate change from religious leaders.

“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” Bush said in New Hampshire.

“I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm,” Bush said.

Santorum told a radio show in early June that “the church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists” and having the church stay focused on theology and morality.

Democrats Embrace Pope's Call 

Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination strongly embraced Pope Francis' encyclical and expressed optimism his words could profoundly impact global efforts to address climate change.

“I applaud the pope and I think [the encyclical] is going to have an international impact because one of the great religious leaders of the world is telling us climate change is real and has got to be addressed,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats and is seeking to be their presidential nominee, told Bloomberg BNA.

Coinciding with the encyclical's release, former Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-Md.) released his plan for powering the U.S. on 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Echoing a phrase from the pope's encyclical, O'Malley said there is a “moral obligation” to act immediately and aggressively to stop climate change.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com