GOP leaders tried yesterday to quell a controversy surrounding the selection of a new House chaplain by releasing what they said was evidence that a Catholic candidate for the post was not unfairly bypassed.
Several House Democrats have complained about a decision by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) to select the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister, as the next House chaplain even though the Rev. Tim O'Brien, a Catholic priest, had more support from the bipartisan task force that reviewed candidates.
Lawmakers are expected to vote on Wright's nomination when they return later this month, and Democrats say they may oppose him unless the GOP satisfies their concerns about the selection process. The uproar has strained relations among lawmakers, with Democrats accusing evangelical Republicans of being anti-Catholic and Republicans countering that Democrats are being partisan.
In a letter yesterday, the panel's co-chairs, Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) and Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), emphasized "it was understood the final selection would be made by Speaker Hastert, Leader Armey, and [Minority] Leader [Richard A.] Gephardt [D-Mo.]. No ranking of the finalists was established by the committee."
But Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), a Catholic and one of the panel's 16 members, said the leaders were informed of the group's support for O'Brien.
A report on the selection process includes the results of two votes on the semifinalists. In a vote where lawmakers ranked their preference, the Rev. Doug Tanner, a Lutheran minister, received the most votes. In a separate vote where lawmakers placed checkmarks beside the names of their top three candidates, O'Brien received 14, while the Rev. Robert Drvorak got 10.5 and Wright 9.5.
Hastert spokesman John Feehery said the documents demonstrated that religious discrimination was not a factor in the House leaders' decision.
"O'Brien was not the overriding choice of the committee. That's just a fiction," Feehery said, adding that Hastert was not informed of any vote totals before interviewing the three finalists. "I don't think anyone can seriously believe Denny Hastert has an anti-Catholic bone in his body."
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said yesterday that the report did not include interview transcripts that would reveal potentially offensive comments.