MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This week, Democrats came to terms with a lobbying force of unexpected influence in the health care debate: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It's a central element of the Catholic Church in America, with nary a lobbyist on the payroll.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: John Carr isn't a bishop himself. He runs the Bishops' Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development. And he isn't a registered lobbyist. But like a lot of other people who aren't registered lobbyists, he lobbies.
The Conference of Bishops said neither Carr nor anyone else would comment for this story. But back in July, he did go on this radio show.
(Soundbite of radio program, "Catholic Radio Weekly")
Unidentified Man: Hello, and welcome to Catholic Radio Weekly, the news and information program from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
OVERBY: The interviewer asked Carr about a new papal encyclical on the importance of moral values. Carr made this point�
Mr. JOHN CARR (Executive Director, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development): We have a distinctive place in the public debate. The church doesn't offer specific solution, but it offers a moral framework, an ethical criteria.
OVERBY: But a specific solution is exactly what critics say the Conference of Bishops demanded, when it insisted on anti-abortion language in the health care overhaul bill. Clergy and staff were in the room when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to let Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak offer an anti-abortion amendment.
Now, some pro-choice Democrats say they might vote against the entire bill. But if the Conference of Bishops is a force to be reckoned with, it's not one of those high-powered operations that hold fundraisers and retreats for members of Congress.
Stephen Schneck is a political scientist at Catholic University of America in Washington.
Dr. STEPHEN SCHNECK (Director, Department of Politics, The Catholic University of America): Probably no more than a handful of people associated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are actively involved, for example, in promoting specific legislation on Capitol Hill.
OVERBY: Schneck says the Conference a few years ago had to cut its budget.
Dr. SCHNECK: One of the things that seems to be the result of this downsizing is a narrowing of their strongest efforts to life issues.
OVERBY: But the bishops' conference still has clout. One big reason is its power over the church infrastructure. In Washington parlance, that would be the grass tops which influence the grassroots.
Late last month, the Conference sent out nearly 19,000 notices for church bulletins that Sunday. They said that without strong anti-abortion language, Catholics should oppose the bill.
Mr. JON O'BRIEN (President, Catholics for Choice): Very few religions have the type of lobby machine that the United States Conference of Bishops have.
OVERBY: That's Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. He says polls consistently show that a majority of Catholics are more liberal on reproductive issues than the conference is.
Mr. O'BRIEN: Sometimes religious leaders are given a free pass, and it's as though we don't ask, who do you represent and is what you're saying factually correct?
OVERBY: And that specific solution that so angers critics, it's hardly the first time religion has collided with the legislative process. Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton, says that 35 years ago ministers, rabbis and priests fought to break a filibuster of the civil rights bill. Zelizer says they visited senators' offices every day, and they kept a vigil in the Senate galleries.
Professor JULIAN ZELISER (History and Public Affairs, Princeton University): So, they were literally this hovering presence in the Capitol.
OVERBY: Which suggests that if Catholic bishops flexed their lobbying muscles to win the anti-abortion provision they wanted, it's an incremental change, not a new chapter opening on Capitol Hill.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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