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An Excused Absence (Note From Holy Father Not Required)

By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, April 17, 2008

P ope Benedict XVI will achieve a rare double filibuster today, closing down both the Senate and the House as more than 100 members of Congress flock to the papal Mass scheduled for this morning at Nationals Park.

Neither chamber will come into session until after lunch, according to aides.

Lawmakers are heading by bus from the Capitol down South Capitol Street to the stadium, although we're guessing they won't have to start queuing up in the wee hours of the morning like the others hoping for the best view of Benedict's first service in the States.

Leading the delegation are some of Congress's most prominent Catholics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) grew up attending the Church of St. Leo the Great in Baltimore, and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) co-chairs an annual fundraising dinner with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to benefit the District of Columbia's Catholic schools.

The Archdiocese of Washington handled ticketing for the event, inviting congressional leaders and members from the area, as well as all Catholic lawmakers. "We invited Catholic members since this is a religious service," explained archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs.

How did the archdiocese figure out which members are Catholic? "Religious affiliation is widely known," Gibbs said, adding that "the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also has staff that work with Congress."

Before anyone complains about Congress not doing its job, consider this: Taking half a day off to see "Il Papa" just delays the House from getting to its agenda for the week -- some post office namings and a few bills dealing with student loans and beach pollution -- and the Senate has had trouble moving forward with a bill designed to correct errors in highway funding legislation approved three years ago.

Maybe a little prayer this morning will help both chambers get ready to tackle more heady issues related to war and peace.

The Sacred and the Profane

Seeing the pope in person at the White House was the height of a truly blessed week for Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who dodged the ultimate bullet by not having to testify in the trial of the D.C. Madam.

Vitter and his wife, Wendy, were spotted yesterday among the thousands of guests who gathered on the South Lawn of the White House to sing "Happy Birthday" to the pontiff on his 81st birthday, and receive his blessing.

On Tuesday, the senator was spared the embarrassment of having to explain why his phone number showed up six times in the phone records of D.C. Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey between 1999 and 2001, when Vitter was in the House. Palfrey's defense rested its case without calling any witnesses.

Palfrey's attorney had subpoenaed Vitter to testify in hopes of bolstering Palfrey's claim that her employees provided only sexual fantasy, not actual sex, for money.

Palfrey wasn't as blessed. She was convicted Tuesday of running a prostitution ring, not a "high-end erotic fantasy service" as she had claimed.

Also spotted in the crowd yesterday was Rick Santorum, the former GOP senator from Pennsylvania who was defeated by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) in 2006.

One source says that while Santorum, who is also Catholic, was "way in the back" where the staffers stood, "he sure was excited."

After losing his Senate seat, Santorum joined the Pittsburgh-based law firm Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott. He works out of the firm's Washington office. (Guess his family has decided to stay in that house in Leesburg where their cyber-schooling of their five children became an issue in the 2006 campaign.)

You Can Go Home Again

If you go to the House this morning or watch the floor's proceedings on C-SPAN, don't be confused by all those extra folks standing around. They're former members of Congress having their annual schmoozefest in their old stomping grounds.

Proving yet again that there's an association for everything, the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress is holding its annual spring meeting this week. And this morning, on the House floor, the group is not only presenting its 38th annual report to Congress but also honoring former senator George J. Mitchell with its Distinguished Service Award. (The man was brave enough to name professional baseball players who had taken performance-enhancing drugs, after all.)

The day-long event turns boozy this evening as old colleagues celebrate and perhaps commiserate at a reception and banquet in Statuary Hall.

Byrd Watching

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) made his 2008 debut chairing a hearing yesterday, a two-hour-plus preview of the Bush administration's request for $108 billion for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 90-year-old Appropriations Committee chairman has been suffering from injuries sustained in a Feb. 26 fall and from a urinary tract infection. Some colleagues and Democratic aides have engaged in a whisper campaign suggesting Byrd should step down as head of such an important committee.

Yesterday's last-minute hearing was as much about demonstrating Byrd's hold on the gavel as it was about the five-year war in Iraq.

According to The Post's Jonathan Weisman, Byrd slurred his words a bit but mustered plenty of patented, Byrd-like rhetorical flourishes. And he won some praise from the administration's guest of honor, White House Budget Director Jim Nussle.

"If I could write the contract today to look as good as you do today, I'd sign up," offered Nussle.

"Thank you. You get an A-plus for that," Byrd responded, drawing laughs.

"I'm doing the best I can, Mr. Chairman," Nussle said.

"You did all right," Byrd replied.

Even one of those rumored to be hoping to succeed Byrd offered the chairman praise. Or was it a backhanded compliment that noted Byrd hadn't chaired a full committee hearing since last fall?

"It's good to see you here," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who is third in Democratic seniority on the committee.

"It's good to see you here, and all the others, too," Byrd replied.

Man of the Month

Congratulations to Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) on winning two distinguished awards, one this week and one last week. On Tuesday, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the National Minority Quality Forum presented Clyburn with the "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his work to address health disparities among African Americans.

Last week, Clyburn, the House majority whip, was awarded the Great American Award by the top African American think tank in the country, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. (Other recipients include former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and boxing great Muhammad Ali.)

Another of Clyburn's great achievements was telling the former president and potential future first gentleman with whom he shares the Great American Award to "chill" with his race-baiting rhetoric in the Democratic presidential primary.

What Is . . . Eggplant?

Having the distinction of shattering one of the last panes in the glass ceiling is taking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to new heights.

Last night, Pelosi was the subject of a "Jeopardy" question in the Signs and Symbols category that asked the color of the outfit she wore when she was sworn in as the first female speaker of the House. It is also one of the colors that represent the women's suffrage movement.

At press time, we couldn't be sure whether both "What is purple?" or "What is aubergine?" would qualify as correct answers. Indeed, Pelosi wore an eggplant-colored suit the day she was sworn in as speaker.

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