WASHINGTON — The stately red-brick row house near the Capitol conjures up an older, more genteel Washington of gaslights and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets.
Behind the Library of Congress and around the corner from the Republican Party’s national headquarters, the former convent at 133 C St. SE has been a religious retreat for some of Capitol Hill’s movers and shakers, to study the Bible and seek spiritual counsel.
This year, however, it has become a symbol for activities that aren’t so spiritual. Three Republicans who have been associated with the house are embroiled in headline-grabbing scandals involving extramarital affairs.
To make matters worse for the party, each of them — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Nevada Sen. John Ensign and former Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering — has been a voice for the party’s core message about family values.
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“It is a reminder to all of us that we ought to be a lot less judgmental,” said Kansas Republican Rep. Jerry Moran, who lives at the C Street house.
“We ought to avoid, as best we can, being hypocrites. All of us have failings in life, and part of what a Christian believes is the ability to overcome those difficulties and to find forgiveness,” Moran added.
After months of complex, dry debates over health care and the economy, the C Street story has been this summer’s steamy potboiler.
It has sex and political hypocrisy, and even claims of political payoff. Ensign’s wealthy parents gave nearly $100,000 to the family of the senator’s mistress, who had been one of his top campaign aides. Her husband had been on his Senate staff.
Newspaper accounts and political blogs have described the house as a “secret religious enclave” and a Christian “cell” whose members follow a “code of silence.”
That might be a bit melodramatic, but the house has become politically radioactive for those who have any associations with it.
The current controversy centers primarily on Ensign, who lives at C Street, and Sanford, who attended spiritual sessions there while he was in Congress during the 1990s. Colleagues of both men reportedly confronted them at the house about their adultery.
Pickering engaged in an affair “while living in the well-known C Street complex,” according to a lawsuit that his estranged wife filed against his alleged mistress.
“Both Ensign and Sanford went out of their way to talk about their faith,” said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “It does raise questions about how sincere evangelicals are when they bring their religious values into politics.”
A Christian organization known as The Fellowship operates the house, though Washington tax records list the owner as a group called Youth With A Mission.
The Fellowship describes itself as an international Christian movement. The house has been assessed at $1.84 million, but the owners pay no property taxes because of its religious status.
The Fellowship holds the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual bipartisan gathering that two prominent Kansans, President Dwight Eisenhower and Sen. Frank Carlson, had a hand in starting back in the 1950s.
Time magazine once called Fellowship leader Douglas Coe one of the 25 most influential evangelists in the country. At one time he was described as Hillary Clinton’s spiritual adviser.
Upstairs at C Street, The Fellowship provides several rooms at low rents for members of Congress. Downstairs, it holds prayer meetings, receptions and other events to bring prominent leaders together through faith.
A number of groups hold prayer sessions on Capitol Hill. Besides C Street, the House of Representatives has a weekly prayer breakfast.
They are “opportunities for lawmakers to come together and, instead of talking about differences, liberal and conservative, we all talk about God and how that plays into our lives,” said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, an ordained Methodist minister.
Current residents include Republicans Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Democratic Reps. Bart Stupak of Michigan and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania.
Republican Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and John Thune of South Dakota also have been associated with the house, among others.
Former Democratic Rep. Jim Slattery of Kansas, who has had a long-standing relationship with the group that operates C Street, said the house had gotten “a total bum rap.”
“There isn’t anything secretive about it,” Slattery said. “Why are people so mystified by the notion that members of Congress pray, or that members of Congress of both parties might come together and pray for each other?”