WASHINGTON (AFP) - Fiscal liberals and social conservatives took diverging approaches Tuesday to welcoming Pope Francis to Washington, capitalising on the historic visit to push their respective agendas of reducing income equality and opposing abortion.
Outside the US Capitol, where the pontiff delivers a historic speech to Congress on Thursday, several hundred federal government contractors including those who work in the Capitol went on strike demanding higher wages.
"Low-wage federal contract workers are on strike to welcome Pope Francis and his message of economic justice," Michael Livingston, a clergyman from New York, said as contractors gathered in a nearby church before marching toward the Capitol. "God knows that message does not reverberate in the halls of our Congress."
The contractors, buttressed by non-profit group Good Jobs Nation Campaign, are seeking a minimum wage of US$15 per hour and the right to form a labour union.
Contractor Sontia Bailey, who works 70 hours a week doing two jobs, including one as a cashier serving senators and their aides, said she hopes the pope's concern for the poor will resonate with lawmakers.
"They need to know and understand that working in the Capitol is not peaches and cream," Ms Bailey, her voice cracking, told the strikers. "We're working for pennies, nickels and quarters and dimes."
Strikers and clergy held up images of Francis and signs reading "Pope Francis, welcome to the Capitol of inequality".
The crowd was joined by Senator Bernie Sanders, a liberal 2016 presidential candidate who supports wage hikes.
"There is no justice in America when the largest low-wage employer is not McDonald's, it is not Burger King, it is not Wal-Mart; it is the United States government," Mr Sanders said.
Meanwhile, the US Senate voted on a Republican measure to ban late-term abortions.
The move comes not just with the visit of the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, but amid controversy over secret videos that showed officials from women's health care provider Planned Parenthood discussing the use of fetal tissue for research.
Democrats were able to block the controversial measure.
"Nothing in my Catholic faith suggests that I should support legislation that violates the Constitution," said Senate Democrat Tim Kaine, citing the Supreme Court's 1973 decision affirming a woman's right to have an abortion.
"Instead of using the papal visit as just another political opportunity, I encourage my Republican colleagues to do what I and my Democratic colleagues plan to do this week. Truly listen to him."
Pope Francis will become the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress. But his critique of global capitalism and focus on climate change policy have made conservative lawmakers nervous.
At least one, House Republican Paul Gosar, intends to boycott the pope's speech.
"They're very uncomfortable," and that's a good thing, unemployed contractor Magale Narce told AFP at the rally.
"It's good that somebody who they look up to is like, hold up, you gotta straighten yourself out, because this is not right, by God."