WASHINGTON – Rep. Peter Welch's sister, Maureen, had better intelligence than the five-term Vermont congressman about Pope Francis' upcoming trip to the United States and his historic address to Congress.
"She called before the announcement and said, 'The pope is coming, can I have your ticket?'" recalled the Democratic lawmaker.
He eagerly said yes to Maureen — Sister Maureen, an Ursuline nun who has been a member of the order for 50 years.
While Welch's decision was somewhat easy, other lawmakers are struggling with an extraordinary demand — from spouses, family, friends, constituents — for the one ticket they get for guests to sit in the upper galleries of the House chamber when the pontiff addresses Congress on Sept. 24. A chance to see and hear the 78-year-old Argentinian famed for making the comfortable uncomfortable is the hottest ticket in Washington.
"We have more requests for this appearance than anything anybody can ever recall around here," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said weeks ahead of the event.
The first time a pontiff will be addressing Congress rivals a presidential inauguration and State of the Union wrapped into one.
The president's Cabinet, the diplomatic corps and members of the Supreme Court, six of whom are Catholic, are expected to join senators and House members in the seats on the floor of the chamber. The House recently took the unusual step of voting to limit the people who can sit in those prime seats, essentially barring former members.
That leaves the current 434 House members and 100 senators figuring out who to please with a gallery ticket and who they might upset. Whether a freshman on the job less than a year or a committee chairman with decades in office, lawmakers face the same rules as a State of the Union speech — one guest ticket per lawmaker.
"I've been thinking long and hard about that," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat. "Turns out I know a couple of Catholics," he said, laughing. "And this is a hard call."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is giving her ticket to her mother, Pat, who headed Catholic Charities of Maine. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said his choice "starts with family," but he hasn't decided yet.
Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., faces a nearly Solomonic choice straight out of the Old Testament.
"Either my wife (Heidi) or my twin brother (James), but I'm a very popular fellow these days because of that one ticket that I get," Lance said.
Several spouses have already claimed the seats.
"My wife is getting my ticket," Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., said of his wife Judy. "Even before I knew that the official announcement was made that the Pope was coming to speak to a joint session of Congress, I received the email from my wife saying, 'Don't give my ticket away.'"
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said simply: "It's not my seat, it's my spouse's seat," a reference to his wife, Myrna.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., avoided picking one family member and disappointing several others.
"I gave it to a nun who I love — Sister Simone. She's the nun on the bus," Boxer said. "She fights for social justice and she's so happy."
Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, and is no stranger to Capitol Hill, lobbying on the 2010 law overhauling health care and immigration. In 2012, she organized the "Nuns on the Bus" tour of nine states to oppose Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, which the group criticized as detrimental to the poor.
Ryan was the Republican vice presidential nominee that year.
The presence of nuns will be a reminder of the changes at the Vatican from Pope Francis' predecessor, Benedict, to the current pontiff. Under Benedict, the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns had come under scrutiny, accused of straying from church teaching. The nuns oversee much of the church's work at hospitals and schools, and the issue roiled the church in the United States.
Earlier this year, under Francis, the Vatican said that it was ending its overhaul of the group, a quick resolution widely seen as an effort to quiet a dispute ahead of the pope's visit.
While lawmakers are limited to one gallery ticket, there is a consolation prize of sorts. Members of Congress can promise a few dozen more family, friends or associates a chance to see the Pontiff, just not in the House chamber.
Each congressional office can request one ticket for seats on the lower West Terrace of the Capitol. Jumbotrons will be set up on the West Front of the Capitol, facing the National Mall, so thousands can watch the broadcast of the pope's speech. Francis is also expected to appear on the Capitol balcony after his speech.
Each lawmaker also can request 50 standing room only tickets for the West Lawn, plus one ticket for guests who can sit in the cavernous Cannon Caucus Room and watch the pontiff on TV.