WASHINGTON — Showing just how difficult it is for Congress to accomplish anything in an election year, it took spiritual guidance Thursday to settle a four-month partisan dispute over a seemingly routine matter: the selection of a House chaplain.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told members of the House that the Presbyterian minister he favored to become House chaplain has dropped from consideration and that he has appointed a Catholic priest from Chicago to the post. He said that he acted "following a long period of prayerful consideration."
But Hastert delivered an uncharacteristic scolding to the packed chamber for the "cynical" and "destructive" political maneuvering that has brought "shame" on the House, and he angrily denied any anti-Catholic bias in initially passing over a priest for the job.
"I will not allow this House to be torn apart and the office of chaplain to be destroyed," Hastert said.
After the Rev. Charles P. Wright withdrew, Hastert named Father Daniel P. Coughlin, vicar for priests for the archdiocese of Chicago. Coughlin then was sworn in as the first Catholic House chaplain since the post was established in the 19th century.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 25, 2000 Home Edition Part A Page 4 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Congressional clergyman--A story in Friday's Times incorrectly stated that the post of House chaplain was established in the 19th century. The first House chaplain was appointed in 1789.
Hastert barely finished speaking when Democrats defended their questioning of the selection process.
Gamesmanship Allegation Denied
"It became a mess when it went into their hands," Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton), a Catholic who served on the search panel, said of House GOP leaders. But she disputed Hastert's assertion that any questioning of the selection process was political gamesmanship.
"Catholics were bewildered by what they did," she said in an interview, contending that the Republican leadership originally passed over a Catholic priest recommended by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
Still, of Coughlin's selection as the first Catholic chaplain, she said: "I am thrilled about history being made."
In settling on Coughlin, 65, Hastert chose a chaplain who did not come before the selection panel. "It certainly didn't make the process any better," said an aide to a top House Democrat.
A spokesman for Hastert said the speaker contacted Francis Cardinal George, who recommended Coughlin. Hastert, for whom the whole controversy has been a "gut-wrenching" experience, chose Coughlin because he wanted "someone not associated with the process" so he could start the healing in the house, the speaker's aide said.
Normally, the appointment of a chaplain--who offers prayers at the opening of House sessions and spiritual counseling to lawmakers at a salary of $132,000 a year--is noncontroversial.
But when House leaders earlier passed over another Catholic priest, Father Timothy O'Brien, a political science professor at Marquette University, Democrats and a few Republicans protested.
O'Brien was among three finalists recommended for the post by the bipartisan search committee last fall. But House GOP leaders selected the Presbyterian minister instead.
The controversy could not have come at a worse time for Republicans, whose presumptive presidential candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has drawn criticism for appearing at Bob Jones University in South Carolina and failing to denounce its anti-Catholic views.
Republicans also worried about the impact of the controversy on their efforts to appeal to 62 million Catholics--the largest single religious denomination in the U.S. and a voting bloc that could play a key role in upcoming elections.
Jack Pitney, an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and an ex-deputy director of research for the Republican National Committee, said the chaplain controversy is a symptom of the ongoing polarization of the House.
"Everything and anything is a potential battleground," he said. "You have a very tight partisan balance, with very passionate conservatives on the Republican side and very passionate liberals on the Democratic side who don't trust each other," he said.
Hastert interrupted a budget debate to announce that Wright had withdrawn his name from consideration because he did not want to serve as chaplain of a divided House. In a letter to the speaker, Wright, a leader in the National Prayer Breakfast movement, said: "Let us be thankful that God is not an independent, not a Democrat and not a Republican."
Hastert said that the bipartisan panel did not recommend a specific candidate but presented three choices. He said that he settled on Wright because of his pastoral experience and "personal warmth."
Hastert Discounts Bigotry Charges
"I'm a patient man," said Hastert, who has sought as speaker to bring more civility to the chamber since the departure of his predecessor, former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "But even I do not easily take in stride carelessly tossed accusations of bigotry. . . . I can only conclude that those who accuse me of anti-Catholic bigotry either don't know me or are maliciously seeking political advantage."
Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) responded: "I have never said and I never believed that there was a bias involved in the making of this selection."
Hastert met with Coughlin in Chicago on Monday. He met the next day with Wright. Coughlin was offered the job Thursday, only hours before his appointment was made.
Coughlin's mother, 85, is an usher at Wrigley Field for Cubs games.