The House Republican leadership's recent decision to name a Presbyterian minister as the new chaplain is sparking a heated partisan controversy, with several Democrats questioning why a Catholic priest was passed over for the job.

Just before the House adjourned last month, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) appointed the Rev. Charles Wright, an area Presbyterian minister who oversees the National Prayer Breakfast, as House chaplain. Though Wright was one of three final nominees submitted to the leadership by a bipartisan task force, the vast majority of the group had endorsed Milwaukee priest Tim O'Brien as its top choice.

O'Brien is director of the Marquette University Center for Government in Washington. According to task force members, the Rev. Robert Dvorak, superintendent of the East Coast Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, received the second-highest number of votes from the 18-member panel.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), a task force member and a Catholic, questioned why Hastert and House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) selected a candidate who had significantly less support from lawmakers. Both Hastert and Armey voted to pick Wright while House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the only other leader with a vote in the process, favored O'Brien.

"After all is said and done, Speaker Hastert and the majority leader squandered a very rare and unique opportunity to highlight, to showcase bipartisanship," Eshoo said. "I don't think the entire thing is an anti-Catholic bias. Do I think that's part of it? I do."

No Catholic has occupied the role of chaplain, and O'Brien told reporters Wednesday he believed his religion was a key factor in the leadership's decision. "I am convinced that if I were a mainline Protestant minister and not a Catholic priest, I would be the candidate," he told the Associated Press.

But Armey said yesterday that O'Brien's Catholicism did not influence the process. "No one was selected or not selected based on denomination, but rather personal qualifications, background and experience," Armey said.

Hastert was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

The dispute, first reported by columnist Mark Shields, highlights how rapidly any sense of congressional comity can dissolve in Washington. Members of the task force, which was equally divided between the parties, labored for more than three months behind the scenes to winnow down an initial list of nearly 50 candidates for the job.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), another committee member, called it a "wonderful" experience in which lawmakers devoted hours to establishing a selection process that future Congresses could use. In the past, the speaker had simply appointed a chaplain without consulting his colleagues.

It is unclear whether lawmakers will challenge the appointment of Wright, who would replace current House chaplain James D. Ford in January. The full House must vote on the selection and Eshoo noted that a number of Democrats were particularly angry.

She first became concerned about the process, she said, when one of the task force members asked O'Brien what his collar stood for and whether he planned to wear it around the Capitol.

In addition to leading the House in prayer each morning, the chaplain is charged with the delicate task of ministering to lawmakers and their families.

Armey spokeswoman Michele Davis emphasized that her boss had based his decision on which candidate seemed most comfortable counseling others.

"In those three interviews it was Wright who came across as the most approachable and the warmest to talk to," Davis said.