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Mormons in Congress launch informal caucus

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Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

By Thomas Burr

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 06 2014 04:24PM
Updated Feb 6, 2014 10:08PM

Washington • The 62nd National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton on Thursday drew 3,500 people, including President Barack Obama and guests from 130 nations.

They munched on eggs and fruit in the cavernous ballroom and talked about the need to take time in their rushed lives for self reflection and a higher power.

Back at the Capitol, the second meeting of congressional Mormons was a much more low-key affair.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, brought a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts.

While it’s not an official caucus, several House members who are LDS have quietly started gathering on a monthly basis to focus on their faith. Politics is off the table but spiritual thoughts are welcome.

"The church, when you’re home, it’s a big part of your life," says Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a Mormon from California. "And now, I have to travel a lot on Sunday and it’s hard to even get to church sometimes. So this is just a chance sometime during the week or the month to say, ‘Hey, put everything else aside and just talk a little bit about our eternal salvation.’ "

That’s essentially the same reasons that the National Prayer Breakfast was created, to build relationships between elected officials and clergy from various faiths. Obama said Thursday it’s important on occasion to stop talking about "party and ideology" and recall that "we are all children of a living God; brothers and sisters called to make his work our own."

"But in this work, as Lincoln said, our concern should not be whether God is on our side," Obama said, "but whether we are on God’s side."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, attended the big prayer breakfast. His fellow Mormons in the House, meanwhile, sat down in McKeon’s office around the same time. With Arnold Friberg’s famous painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer on the wall and the Capitol dome gleaming outside the window, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, offered a spiritual message and Chaffetz discussed his conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Being in Congress is a bit different," Chaffetz said after they adjourned. "There are experiences and stresses that you don’t find elsewhere. So we share a common bond that way."

There are now 15 members of Congress who are Mormon, eight in the House and seven in the Senate. Senators haven’t been invited to the House gathering so far but could join later.

Efforts to bring together Mormons in Congress have fizzled in the past. Then-Rep. Jim Hansen of Utah used to hold court with his LDS colleagues on occasion but the meetings broke up after he retired in 2000. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., started the Mormon Democratic Congressional Caucus in 2005, though it was a small group. The caucus still exists in name only, with Reid, Rep. Jim Matheson and America Samoa’s delegate, Eni Faleomavaega, as members.

The new effort will be bipartisan, McKeon says. He said there are often so many distractions in Washington, it’s good to share. But he stressed that the informal group isn’t going to try and coalesce around legislation or play politics.

"It has nothing to do with the church," McKeon said. "It has to do with our individual spirituality."

Rep. Raul Labrador, a Mormon Republican from Idaho, joined McKeon, Chaffetz and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, at the meeting.

"It’s just sharing the gospel," Labrador said, adding that the only goal is that, "hopefully that we can remain good men."

tburr@sltrib.com

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