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Priest Is Named House Chaplain

Speaker Dennis Hastert named a Catholic priest, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, as the new House chaplain, and accused Democrats of playing an "unseemly political game" by alleging religious bias in a four-month controversy over the post.

Coughlin, the vicar for priests in the Chicago archdiocese, thus became the first Catholic to hold the post of ministering to House members and their families. He called the appointment "terribly unexpected."

Hastert acted after the Rev. Charles D. Wright, a Presbyterian, withdrew from consideration for the post, four months after he was picked and a priest, the Rev. Tim O'Brien, was passed over. The choice sparked allegations by some Democrats that Republicans were biased against Roman Catholics.

Wright, his nomination in limbo for months, offered to resign earlier in the week.

Hastert announced Coughlin's appointment in a somber speech on the House floor, where he retraced the controversy, and responded to his critics.

"I am a patient man," said the Illinois Republican, who pledged on his first day as speaker to lower the level of acrimony in the House. "But even I did not easily take in stride carelessly tossed accusations of bigotry.

"Where I come from such slander is an ugly business," he said. Those making the charges, he said, "don't know me or are maliciously seeking political advantage by making these accusations."

Moments later, House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt responded on the House floor. "I have never said and I never believed that there was a bias involved in the making of this selection," said Gephardt.

The Republican side of the House was filled, the Democratic side about half filled, as Hastert spoke. Lawmakers in both parties applauded the speaker's remarks.

Coughlin stood just outside the chamber as his appointment was announced. A few moments later, he entered the House and was sworn in by Hastert. The new chaplain has extensive experience in pastoral counseling, the speaker said.

Wright could not be reached immediately for comment. But several sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wright and Hastert held a private and undisclosed meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday. They said the minister decided on his own to offer his withdrawal, without any pressure from the speaker

Wright's nomination emerged last fall from a bipartisan committee of lawmakers, but Hastert has the authority to name a chaplain on his own authority.

Republicans have been battered for months by charges of anti-Catholic bias, first made by O'Brien, a losing candidate.

"I am convinced that if I were a mainline Protestant minister and not a Catholic priest, I would be the candidate," he said in an interview in December, and some Democrats also alleged bias.

Democrats said O'Brien had been the top pick of the bipartisan group of lawmakers that sifted through contenders, but Hatert and Majority Leader Dick Armey turned to Wright instead. The two GOP leaders said they had been given a list of three finalists Wright and O'Brien included but were unaware of any ranking.

Republicans complain that Gephardt first agreed to Wright's choice, but has since sought political gain from the issue, particularly in view of the expectation that Catholics will account for more than 25 percent of the voters in this fall's election. In public comments, Gephardt has criticized the selection process as flawed.

Both Hastert and Armey have strongly denied any anti-Catholic bias, and Hastert recently told a closed-door meeting of lawmakers the matter had weighed heavily on him personally.

At the same time, Republicans have initiated a series of gestures in recent months that appeared part of an effort to counter the criticism. These included awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to an elderly and ill Cardinal John O'Connor of New York.

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