WASHINGTON ― A Democratic congressman is quietly working with GOP colleagues to try to find a way to keep the chaplain of the House in his job, despite Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) abruptly forcing him out last month after he gave a prayer urging fairness in the GOP’s tax bill.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Wednesday that Republicans have approached him ― including some from the conservative House Freedom Caucus ― about finding a bipartisan solution to keeping House Chaplain Patrick Conroy in his post.
“They are willing to explore this. That is the nature of our conversations,” Connolly said of his talks this week with GOP lawmakers, whom he wouldn’t name. “We want to find a mechanism, if Republican leadership will accept it, whereby the resignation is rescinded.”
Talks have centered on the idea of letting Conroy stay in his role through the end of the year, and in the meantime, the House forming a bipartisan committee to search for a new chaplain. The panel could still consider Conroy to stay on, Connolly emphasized.
Ryan still hasn’t said why he pushed out Conroy, who has been the chaplain since 2011 and whose last day is set for May 24.
But Connolly previously told HuffPost he has been “informed reliably” by GOP colleagues that Ryan wanted Conroy gone after a prayer he gave during last fall’s debate on the GOP’s tax bill. In the prayer, Conroy urged Congress not to create “winners and losers” under the Republican tax measure, which greatly benefits rich people over time.
Ryan read that prayer as a “tilt to the Democrats” because it implied criticisms of the tax cuts helping the rich, Connolly said Republican lawmakers told him. “They cite that as evidence as that being more political than he’s comfortable with,” he said.
Lawmakers in both parties have fumed about Ryan’s move. Many learned last month that Conroy was leaving, but didn’t know until last week that he had been forced out. And Catholics like Connolly have been suspicious that conservatives were pushing to relieve the urban Catholic Jesuit priest in order to replace him with someone more ideologically aligned with them.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, all but confirmed their suspicions last week when he suggested the next chaplain should have a wife and a family ― a requirement that would automatically exclude Catholic priests from the position. Amid outcry from Catholics, Walker later removed himself from a bipartisan committee to find a new House chaplain.
Connolly said despite Walker’s comments, some conservatives want to find a way to “restore dignity for Father Conroy” and to the House itself by keeping the chaplain on the job for at least the rest of the year.
“I know for a fact that some members of the Freedom Caucus felt this was handled badly and sends a signal of bigotry they don’t want to be associated with,” the Virginia Democrat said. “I’ve never seen members so angry about something in this House in my 10 years. Because it’s not only political and not only about your faith. It’s personal.”
A Ryan spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on whether the speaker would be open to letting Conroy stay on for the year.
“I’ve never seen members so angry about something in this House in my 10 years.”
Democrats unsuccessfully tried last week to pass a resolution creating a special committee to investigate why Ryan forced Conroy to resign. A GOP aide with a sense of the Republican conference later told HuffPost the resolution could have actually passed if Democrats had kept partisan language out of it. The measure, authored by Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), twice referred to the Republican tax plan as the “GOP tax scam.”
Connolly said he hasn’t spoken to Conroy yet about the bipartisan talks underway to keep him in his job.
Asked why there should be anyone leading prayers in the House, given the country’s grounding in the separation of church and state, Connolly said that’s a different issue altogether.
“There’s an argument to be made for that, but that was an argument in 1774 and James Madison lost,” he said. “As long as we have [a House chaplain], we’ve got to be fair and can’t be censored. People can’t be fired for innocuous prayer. That’s kind of where we are now.”