Habemus Politicking: White Smoke Drifts Across Washington

As the cardinals continued deliberations in the Sistine Chapel earlier today, President Obama went to Capitol Hill for his own meeting behind closed doors with congressional Republicans.

Perched at a lectern, giving what looked more like a sermon than any sort of roundtable, Obama was delivered a note during the meeting, according to Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.).

The president announced to the gathered GOPs that there was white smoke at the Vatican, signaling the election of a new pope. “I asked if that means White House is open for tours?” Long tweeted. “He said no but Vatican is.”

After arriving back at the White House, Obama walked toward the press pool and quipped, “You guys hit the jackpot.” But he ignored a question — “Are you paying attention to the pope?” — and walked off to the Oval Office.

Washington saw the election not just of a shepherd of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics but of a new political leader, a head of the Holy See who is known as a humble yet formidable man, who has washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients, who rides the bus to work and cooks his own meals, but has been at loggerheads with leftist Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner for refusing to budge on Church orthodoxy.

“On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I offer our warm wishes to His Holiness Pope Francis as he ascends to the Chair of Saint Peter and begins his papacy. As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than two thousand years—that in each other we see the face of God,” Obama said in a statement on the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

The 266th leader of the Catholic Church is the first Latin American pope in history, as well as the first Jesuit pontiff.

“As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day,” Obama continued. “Just as I appreciated our work with Pope Benedict XVI, I look forward to working with His Holiness to advance peace, security and dignity for our fellow human beings, regardless of their faith. We join with people around the world in offering our prayers for the Holy Father as he begins the sacred work of leading the Catholic Church in our modern world.”

The White House then announced that Vice President Joe Biden would lead the U.S. delegation to the March 19 installation Mass of Pope Francis.

“Jill and I want to offer our congratulations to His Holiness Pope Francis, and extend our prayers as he takes on this holy responsibility. I am happy to have the chance to personally relay my well wishes, and those of the American people, when I travel to Rome for his Inaugural Mass,” Biden said in a statement. “The Catholic Church plays an essential role in my life and the lives of more than a billion people in America and around the world, not just in matters of our faith, but in pursuit of peace and human dignity for all faiths. I look forward to our work together in the coming years on many important issues.”

On the balcony to give his first blessing, Urbi et Orbi, Pope Francis asked those gathered in rainy St. Peter’s Square to pray for him.

“You all know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother cardinals have gone almost to the ends of the earth to get him,” the new pontiff said. “But here we are.”

Before Bergoglio was elected and took the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the creature most often associated with the patron saint of animals — a bird — was perched atop the Sistine Chapel chimney for much of the afternoon.

Besides jumping on the pope’s strict adherence to the Church’s moral teachings, Twitter lit up with accusations from leftists that the pope aided the right-wing junta in Argentina. Blogger Andrew Sullivan declared that Francis’ affinity for the poor “will give Paul Ryan heartburn.”

“My family and I offer our prayers for Pope Francis. Like his namesake St. Francis, Pope Francis has lived a life of humility and commitment to the poor. For his spiritual leadership, we are grateful. And for his message of renewal, we will heed his call,” Ryan, a Catholic, said this evening.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were sneaking peeks at the news during the day to not miss the white smoke. “Habemus Papam,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted right after the news broke.

The excitement clearly transcended religion.“Pope Benedict XVI inspired us with his unwavering commitment to faith during, as he put it, ‘today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,'” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a Methodist. “The election of Pope Francis I is a jubilant occasion for millions of Catholics in Ohio and around the world, and I join them in welcoming this new faith leader.”

Catholic Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said today’s election is an important day for the world.

“The Catholic Church is the largest charitable, healthcare and educational institution in the world, and the spiritual home to 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe,” Toomey said. “The new Holy Father Francis I has an immense task ahead of him and I pray that God will uphold him with strength, wisdom and courage to take on the challenges and beauty of his new role.”

“A new leader has emerged onto the world stage with the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis I,” Menendez said. “It is a significant day for the people of the world, as well as for the people of the Roman Catholic Church. The church has decided to break with centuries of tradition in choosing its first non-European pontiff of the modern era. Let all of us who hope for a more peaceful world, brought forth through greater understanding between peoples and greater dedication to our highest ideals, pray for Pope Francis I.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the second of 12 children in a Catholic family, said “thanks be to God for our new pope, Francis I.”

“American Catholics rejoice over this news, and offer our prayers and blessings to His Holiness with confidence that he will fill the Chair of St. Peter with grace. Even more special is that our church will be led for the first time by a Holy Father from the Americas, marking a new milestone in the history of a faith that has endured for millennia,” Boehner said. “For me, it is truly inspiring that our new pope has taken the name of Francis, the saint who lived a simple life of humility and charity, setting an example for how to make God’s love visible to all, especially those in despair or pain.”

Many others on the Hill were tweeting their comments as the news unfolded.

“As a proud jesuit-trained grad of Bklyn Prep I look froward to the papacy of Pope Francis I – i am sure all Americans pray for his success,” tweeted Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).

“Congratulations to Catholics worldwide on the selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis!” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). There was no reaction as of publication from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who got a scolding from Pope Benedict XVI about abortion and assisted suicide in a 2009 meeting.

“Overjoyed for Catholics everywhere and hopeful that Pope Francis will help foster peace and spirituality across the globe. #HabemusPapem,” tweeted Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“Congratulations to the new Pope, Francis I, first leader of the Catholic faith to hail from the new world,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).

“Not every day the President breaks the news to you that there’s a new pope. Blessings on Pope Francis I. This is a historic day,” tweeted Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

Secretary of State John Kerry said he and his wife “will keep the Holy Father in our prayers as he begins a new era for our Church.”

“For Teresa and I, our Catholic faith is a source of strength and comfort every day, from Sunday to Sunday, in moments of difficulty and moments of joy, and an inspiration to act on issues of social justice and global responsibility,” Kerry said. “…On this momentous day, the United States renews our commitment to working closely with the Holy See to advance our shared belief in peace and humanity.”