Religious Leaders Rally for Poor as Senate Passes Budget Cuts to Medicare

Religious leaders prayed on Capitol Hill Thursday and urged Congress not to approve proposed changes to the 2006 Budget plan that would make mild cuts to health care programs for the elderly, poor and disabled.

"We religious leaders cannot be the conscience of the President or members of Congress, but we come here today to remind them whose side God is on,” Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, said at a press conference early Thursday. “We call on all representatives of good will to remember God's bias when they vote on cuts."

The Senate narrowly approved the cuts that same day with a 52-47 vote. While the measure does not make changes to the food stamp program, it marks the first approved cuts since 1997 to benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and farm subsidies. The House is expected to vote on the bill next week.

According to press release by the NCC, the four religious leaders of Protestant, mainline, evangelical and reformed Jewish traditions met with the speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert, in an “impromptu” gathering also on Thursday, and told him that the proposed $35 billion to $50 billion in cuts was “appalling and immoral.”

"They gave him an earful," said another clergyman, one of about 20 clergy who were also on their way to pray about the budget cuts.

In recent years, mainline church leaders have joined with other faith groups to rally against federal budget plans and service cuts to the poor. Through press conferences, letters and rallies, they have urged congressmen to serve those who are most needy and remember the tens of millions who live below the poverty level in the world’s richest nation.

Religious leaders at the latest press conference reiterated the call to “do justice” by rejecting the budget cuts.

“We come here today as people of faith,” said Giddings Ivory, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Washington office. “We come here to hold up our icons, the prophets, the disciples, the Messiah, who still challenge us to ‘hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate,’ where injustice to the vulnerable … will thrive if these budget cuts are realized.

“I am here today to express concern. … Our nation is about to balance its budget on the backs of the poor.”

Giddings Ivory specifically criticized the House budget package and challenged members of the House to support poor families when they vote next week.

“The House budget reconciliation package incorporates the reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program … increasing the work requirements for TANF recipients, without adequate funding for child care to meet the needs of working parents,” Giddings Ivory said. “Some 270,000 children in low-income working families would likely lose child-care assistance by 2010 under this plan.

The senate bill must be reconciled the one in the House of Representatives. A bicameral version would be sent to President George W. Bush for signing.

The two other leaders at the conference were: the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., president of the National Council of Churches USA and Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana and Mississippi, joined the press conference by telephone.