Biden, lawmakers look to find common spiritual ground at more intimate National Prayer Breakfast

Biden, lawmakers look to find common spiritual ground at more intimate National Prayer Breakfast

Biden, lawmakers look to find common spiritual ground at more intimate National Prayer Breakfast


CNN
 — 

President Joe Biden offered an olive branch to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday as he gave an interfaith and bipartisan address to the National Prayer Breakfast, remarks on Capitol Hill that come amid pressing issues including the debt limit, a national conversation on justice and policing and congressional investigations into his administration.

Biden’s remarks on respect and the hard work of loving one’s neighbor were given to a smaller group of lawmakers than previous breakfasts as organizers sought to return the event to its original purpose: An intimate meeting of lawmakers, faith leaders and the president of the United States gathering in fellowship to pray for the country and guidance to lead the nation.

Recalling a time in Congress when lawmakers would “argue like hell” with each other and then break bread, Biden said, “I don’t know how we do that anymore. But we have to. We have to start treating each other in ways different than we have, in my humble opinion.”

He continued, “Let’s just sort of, kind of join hands again a little bit. Let’s start treating each other with respect. That’s what Kevin and I are going to do, not a joke. Very good meeting yesterday. I think we got to do it across the board. Doesn’t mean we’ve got to agree – fight like hell – but let’s treat each other with respect.”

Biden and McCarthy huddled for over an hour on Wednesday in the Oval Office on the debt limit and federal spending. The meeting, as predicted, did not bear fruit, but McCarthy signaled optimism that it was a “good first start” and both he and Biden can reach consensus “long before” the United States reaches default. Both sides, however, remain dug in on their respective positions.

Biden called on Americans more broadly to “look out for one another” as he recalled the loss of the last several years, pointing to the pandemic, record extreme weather, mass shootings, and the death of Tyre Nichols.

“In our politics and our lives, we too often see each other as opponents and not competitors. We see each other as enemies, not neighbors. And as tough as these times have been, if we look closer, we see the strength, the determination that has long defined America,” he said.

He called on Americans to follow a “ministry of presence” by “being there for one another… not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as who we really are: As fellow Americans.”

As Biden reflected on the concept of loving thy neighbor, he said it was “the hardest one.”

“At least it’s hardest here. Didn’t used to be as hard. I’ve been here a long time, but it seems to be getting harder. It’s easy to say – it’s hard to do. But in that commandment lies the essence of faith: Loving our neighbors is also part of the essence of the American promise. A promise that comes with a new Congress that is more diverse and more different and more religions, more races, more – more diversity than ever before in our history,” he said.

He thanked the members present at the breakfast as he applauded a recent effort to make it a “more intimate gathering” and “bring it back to its roots” as organizers have sought to depoliticize the event.

While hundreds of people were in attendance at a Hilton, from which the program was livestreamed, the event was meant to be a contrast to some of the more political and contentious national prayer breakfasts of the Trump years just as Biden heads into a tumultuous few months of congressional investigations and debt ceiling standoff.

Presidential remarks have largely focused on faith and prayer, but former President Donald Trump used multiple appearances at the breakfast to call out his political rivals.

In 2020, Trump took veiled shots at then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Mitt Romney, who had joined Democrats one day prior as the sole Republican to vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial.

Amid a call from another speaker at the breakfast to “love your enemies,” Trump said, “They like people and sometimes they hate people. I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m trying to learn. It’s not easy,” adding, “When they impeach you for nothing, then you’re supposed to like them. It’s not easy, folks. I do my best.”

And at his first appearance in 2017, Trump asked the room full of lawmakers, foreign dignitaries and religious leaders to “pray” for Arnold Schwarzenegger so that ratings of his show – NBC’s “The Apprentice” – would go up.

Originally, the prayer breakfast was a far less formal affair. An organizer of the breakfast told CNN that the first breakfast was actually a small gathering of President Dwight Eisenhower and members on Capitol Hill after Eisenhower learned lawmakers were meeting regularly to pray. Eisenhower confided to a lawmaker at the time that he was lonely and that the White House seemed isolating. He asked if he could join the members in the exercise of faith.

Today, lawmakers still meet regularly in religious fellowship: Every Wednesday, in session, senators meet for Bible study, and House members regularly meet on Thursdays.

One member who participates in them told CNN that they are some of the most important and intimate gatherings on Capitol Hill, an opportunity for members – who often are away from family and friends when they are in Washington – to share about their family, their faith and even the very human toll that the job can take. The gatherings are considered off the record, a safe space and one of the most important bastions of bipartisan dialogue that happens on Capitol Hill.

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