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Scandals have led Congress to become more involved in bipartisan political breakfast

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On its face, the National Prayer Breakfast is a serene, bipartisan event full of spiritual reflection. Over the years, it has also been a source of controversy - full of shadowy fundraising, behind the scenes lobbying, even infiltration by a Russian spy. So lawmakers now have taken it out of the hands of the group that had run it for decades, which leaves lots of questions about the new structure of the prayer breakfast and what its goals are. NPR's Domenico Montanaro has some answers. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, glad to be with you.

SHAPIRO: So the prayer breakfast is happening tomorrow. This feels like a tradition that's been around forever. What are its origins?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it's been happening for 70 years, actually. Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 was the first president to attend one. He was convinced to be there by Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist. From then on, presidents have attended annually. You know, Billy Graham and then his son Franklin, also an evangelist, increased their influence in Washington and were in the ear of presidents for decades.

SHAPIRO: So how did it evolve into a prayer and powerbroker breakfast?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean the breakfast really gained influence and became a huge networking and recruitment event for the group that ran it for decades, known as The International Foundation, otherwise known as or goes by The Fellowship or The Family. And that name was popularized in the last few years through a book and Netflix docuseries about it. And it's really this kind of secretive group that has met behind the scenes with especially Republican lawmakers. The breakfast really has ballooned into this multiday affair attended by thousands, including many from overseas. And there are a lot of questions because there was a lot more going on than just prayers.

SHAPIRO: Some of it unsavory. Tell us about the scrutiny that The Family and the breakfast have been under the last couple years.

MONTANARO: Yeah, most notably, it became difficult to keep tabs on who was coming and going, mixing with these lawmakers. You know, that came to a head in 2018 after the Justice Department charged Maria Butina for acting as an agent of the Russian Federation. DOJ actually revealed that Butina had twice attended the prayer breakfast as a guest. Following some of these revelations and some of the money that The Fellowship had spent in overseas trips, for example, for some Republican lawmakers, many Democrats stopped attending. Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, who's chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and has been involved with hosting the breakfast, said he and Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma realized things needed to change.

CHRIS COONS: When Senator Lankford and I were co-chairs of the National Prayer Breakfast a number of years ago, there were a lot of questions raised about the finances, about who was invited, about how it was structured. And we frankly had to admit as co-chairs we didn't know as much as we felt we should have.

MONTANARO: So they worked to help create a new nonprofit group to run the breakfast. It's headed by former Senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas. And Coons says this group is going to be far more accountable to Congress, though it's not exactly clear how yet. That's given some Democrats like Senator Tim Kaine at least confidence to attend. And Kaine had boycotted the event for years. His office tells me that Kaine now feels it's been significantly reformed.

SHAPIRO: So a new day dawns for the prayer breakfast. How is this year going to be different?

MONTANARO: First, it's going to be a lot smaller. Just lawmakers and their plus ones are invited, about 300 people as opposed to, say, 3,500 in the past. It's also been moved from a D.C. hotel to the Capitol. Lawmakers will now essentially be walled off at the event from outsiders who are seeking influence. Now, the old foundation is still holding their own big event and beaming in the president's speech to there at this Washington hotel. And there are questions about how much of a break this new group really is from the old one. You know, several of its board members have ties back to The Fellowship, and its purpose still seems to be rooted in Christian evangelicalism. The group's website, for example, says that the breakfast is in, quote, "the spirit of love and reconciliation as Jesus of Nazareth taught 2,000 years ago."

SHAPIRO: Doesn't exactly sound interfaith.

MONTANARO: No. And I mean, that's one of the big criticisms. It certainly seems to be still rooted in this Christian evangelicalism at a time, by the way, when a growing number of people, about 30%, are identifying as religiously unaffiliated. Now, Senator Pryor says to give the group a chance to show it can be inclusive. There are also questions, though, about where the new foundation is getting its money. The group has not disclosed its donors, though Pryor said he intends to.

MARK PRYOR: We will be disclosing all of that once we get this one breakfast behind us. But right now, we're just not quite ready to do that. But transparency's our aim there.

MONTANARO: Pryor promises donor disclosures will come sometime in the next few weeks, so I'll have to follow up and let you know, Ari.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.