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Budget smackdown! Paul Ryan vs. Catholic nuns on a bus

If Paul Ryan wants to pass his budget, he'll have to face down Sister Diane Donohue first.

"It's immoral!" the 81-year-old Catholic nun said of the Wisconsin Republican's fiscal plan, as the crowd gathered on Capitol Hill erupted in cheers. Another nun, Sister Simone Campbell, denounced the proposed cuts to food stamps, child care, and other programs for the needy. "That's not Christian," said Campbell, who leads a Catholic social justice lobby called NETWORK. Campbell reminded her supporters of the Bible's teachings on charity and compassion—but threw in a dash of realism as well. "Sisters don't just do it with grace," she explained. "For heaven's sake, we need money!"

The nuns were concluding a two-week bus tour through nine swing states to protest the Ryan budget proposal, contending that it undermined Catholic teachings to serve the poor and vulnerable. Their rally on Monday outside the United Methodist Church's D.C. offices was peppered with prayers, gospel songs, and Bible verses (Isaiah 58:7: "Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.")

But the Catholic nuns also understand that Kumbaya moments aren't enough to change votes in Washington: They have a full-fledged lobbying campaign, complete with a 53-page "faithful budget" that outlines their own fiscal priorities in considerable detail, backed by an interfaith coalition of social justice groups.

Sister Marge Clark,  of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, joined the "Nuns on the Bus" tour from its first stop in Des Moines, Iowa to its visit Sunday to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's office. A nun-turned-Washington lobbyist—Clark has spent eight years advocating for Catholic social justice issues on the Hill—she is a realist when it comes to budget politics. "This budget as it is is not going to be passed by the Senate or signed by the president," said Clark, dressed in a purple blouse and sensible Birkenstock-like sandals. Instead, her big fear is that Congress will end up targeting programs for the poor when it comes to the big fiscal cliff negotiations at the end of the year. "It's an easy way to find pay-fors," she said.

Clark points out that even Senate Democrats agreed to cut $4 billion in food stamp spending in for the 2013 budget, though they fended off the most draconian cuts that Republicans proposed. "It's discouraging," she says. "Both [sides] are looking at terrible, terrible cuts." Under their alternative budget, the Catholic nuns want to boost spending for supplemental food programs and welfare, expand the Child Tax Credit and a tax credit for working poor Americans without children, and invest in public school infrastructure projects, among other changes.

To pay for such programs—and tackle the deficit—their budget "a tax system founded on fairness and shared commitment...among individuals and corporations to take care of our needs and priorities."

In other words: higher taxes for the rich. "Question austerity!" Campbell proclaimed during her speech. "The only way out of this is to raise revenue." Clark, for one, argued that "tax expenditures" are really lost revenue in disguise. "'Expend' means spending," she said. "We're spending a lot of federal money, and we don't need these tax breaks."

Ryan has been under a steady hail of criticism from Catholic groups over his budget. The U.S. Conference of Bishops similarly denounced his spending plan in the spring, arguing that it "fails to meet" the moral principles of the Catholic Church. Of course, there's no shortage of budget advocates who've been trying to make their views heard on Capitol Hill. But Clark believes that the public is inclined to have a different kind of faith in nuns. "We're not a vested interest," she said.