No member of Congress is on the official invitation list for Pope John Paul II's funeral on Friday, but a delegation of senators will head to Vatican City anyway, joining ordinary pilgrims to pay their respects.
"We're close to having a plane, then we go from there," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who is leading the delegation.
House leaders are not sure whether they will send a group, although they are under pressure from their 129 Roman Catholic members to do so. "We're waiting for an invitation and are going to follow Vatican protocol," said a senior Republican House aide.
This is about as close as Congress gets to acting on whim. There are no available hotel rooms to be found in Rome. How lawmakers will get around the city is a big question. They are not sure whether they can even get into St. Peter's Basilica for the funeral.
The White House announced yesterday that President Bush and first lady Laura Bush will lead a five-member delegation to the funeral, with the three other officials to be named today.
"Laura and I are looking forward to leading a delegation to honor the Holy Father," Bush said at a news conference with Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko.
When Pope John Paul I died in 1978, after only a 33-day papacy, most countries were represented by ambassadors accredited to the Holy See. There was a sprinkling of cabinet ministers, but Italy was the only country to send its chiefs of state and government. The U.S. delegation was headed by Lillian Carter, the mother of President Jimmy Carter, along with Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.), New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch and Connecticut Gov. Ella T. Grasso.
The funeral of his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, was attended by 105 delegations from foreign countries, more than double the number that attended Pope John XXIII's funeral in 1963. Jimmy Carter's wife, Rosalynn, headed the U.S. delegation, which included Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and New York Gov. Hugh Carey.
As the first pope of the media age and a hugely influential world leader, John Paul II's funeral promises to be a much bigger affair. About 200 world leaders are expected to attend, along with several kings and at least one Nobel Peace Prize winner. Rome is bracing for an additional 2 million mourners and will open stadiums and set up campsites to accommodate them.
Starting as early as last Friday, lawmakers began phoning leadership offices to say they were interested in attending the funeral. One of the first was House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), whose office notified House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
"Technically she's the highest-ranking Catholic in Congress," said Jennifer Crider, Pelosi's spokeswoman.
Two of the 24 Catholic senators lobbying Frist are Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).
A senior Democratic aide said that he thought it was unlikely that Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), a Mormon, would go, but that Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the Senate's second-ranking Democrat and a Catholic, probably would.