WASHINGTON -- A drive to bring Pope John Paul II to Washington so he could make the first papal appearance before a joint session of Congress ran out of gas last month.
The reason: lawmakers learned that the only time the pontiff might have been able to come was on a congressional day off.
Two senators and 51 House members signed letters urging House Speaker Newt Gingrich to invite the pope to address Congress when he comes to the United States in October to visit Baltimore, New York and Newark.
Mr. Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and other Republican congressional leaders briefly discussed the idea a few weeks ago and consulted with their advisers in conservative religious and evangelical circles.
But the notion died after church officials in Baltimore said the only date that the pope was available was Monday, Oct. 9 -- the federal holiday of Columbus Day.
"You could never get these guys to agree to come in on a holiday," said Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who spearheaded the drive to invite Pope John Paul to the Capitol.
"Plus, somebody has to run the place, and they have to be paid," he said. "There's just no way."
Thus, for the sake of a holiday that honors the first Roman Catholic to come to the New World, congressional leaders canceled the invitation to the pope.
Of course, Pope John Paul might not have accepted the invitation anyway.
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Conference, said he posed the question to three papal advance men in New York last month and was told that the pontiff has a policy of not addressing national legislatures or parliaments.
Although the pope is addressing the United Nations during his October trip, Monsignor Maniscalco said that the pontiff is traveling not as head of the Vatican state but as a spiritual leader making a pastoral visit to some of the nation's 60 million Catholics.
But the pope entertained a similar invitation in 1979 from House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, according to the Boston Herald. The newspaper reported that the pontiff declined that invitation "with much regret" because of his own scheduling problems.
Aides to Mr. Boehner said they received some encouragement from the Baltimore-based staff of Cardinal William H. Keeler, who is in charge of arrangements for the pope's visit.
The only stipulation made by the cardinal's staff was that nothing could be done to upset any of the pope's appearances in Baltimore on Sunday, Oct. 8, according to Barry Jackson, chief of staff to the House Republican Conference, which is headed by Mr. Boehner.
Pope John Paul is scheduled to return to Rome Sunday night on a flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Mr. Jackson said he suggested in talks with the Rev. Michael J. White, who is managing day-to-day operations for the Baltimore portion of the trip, that perhaps the pontiff could stay in the country overnight and appear before Congress Monday morning.
"We were told that maybe something like that could be worked out, but then we realized Monday was Columbus Day," Mr. Jackson said.
The only other possible date on the pope's schedule was the preceding Friday, Oct. 6. But that was even worse because Congress will be off the two preceding days, for the Jewish Holiday of Yom Kippur.
"Members from the West Coast wouldn't come back for just one day," Mr. Jackson said.
Father White urged Mr. Boehner's aides to pursue their request through the State Department and the Vatican, according to Bill Blaul, a spokesman for the Baltimore Archdiocese. But the congressman's staff never followed through.
The decision to scrap the invitation to the pope this year sparked rumors that perhaps there was anti-Catholic plot afoot among Republicans closely tied to the evangelical movement.
Tony Blankley, Mr. Gingrich's spokesman, said the motive wasn't anti-Catholic. Mr. Blankley said he believed a policy decision had been made not to enter the dangerous arena of religious politics.
"Obviously, the pope is special and a hero to many of us because of his role in the defeat of Communism," Mr. Blankley added. "But my sense was that people decided this was a road best not traveled."
But Mr. Boehner and aides to Mr. Dole had tested the political winds for a potential backlash and the verdict was that the pope's appearance could be only a political plus for all involved.
Mr. Boehner said he was with Mr. Gingrich when the speaker tried the idea out on a group of social conservatives, who warmly endorsed the idea.
A senior official in Mr. Dole's presidential campaign said that Dole aides consulted evangelical Christians about the papal invitation and also got a thumbs-up.
"From a pure political standpoint, what could be better than hosting the pope when you're running in a presidential campaign that may be decided on a few swing Midwest states loaded with Catholics?" the Dole official said, referring to Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. "We were all for it if the schedule had worked out."
Mr. Boehner, whose staff describes him as Congress' top-ranking Catholic, says he hasn't given up.
The Ohio Republican is still trying to arrange for a congressional delegation to meet with the pope in Baltimore on Sunday, Oct. 8. This might be done in conjunction with a meeting with President Clinton, who is also expected to greet the pope before Pope John Paul leaves Sunday night.
Mr. Boehner also has hopes of securing a papal appearance before Congress sometime in the future.
The congressman began the effort last year, when Pope John Paul was originally scheduled to come to Baltimore. But Mr. Boehner's efforts then were foiled when the pontiff had to cancel that trip because he was recovering from hip-replacement surgery.
Mr. Boehner says he's under heavy pressure from his mother to make the papal appearance happen. "When one of the Ohio papers carried a story about our letter, my mother called me and said, 'If you pull this off, I get your seat.' "
Mrs. Boehner better hope the next chance doesn't fall on Labor Day, Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.
"If there is one thing members of Congress can count on -- and there may be only one thing -- it is that we will not be in session on federal holidays," Mr. Blankley said.
"I can't imagine anything, short of war, that could cause us to change that."