The Washington Post

Ads by Christian groups pressure lawmakers to protect the poor in debt talks

A new coalition of influential Christian groups is ramping up pressure on President Obama and Congress to shield the poor from spending cuts in the debt-limit struggle, with one organization launching an advertising campaign Tuesday on Christian radio stations in politically important markets.

The ads, airing in the home states of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and in the home district of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), feature local pastors declaring the federal budget a “moral document.”

“The book of Proverbs teaches that where there is no leadership, a nation falls, and the poor are shunned while the rich have many friends,” says Las Vegas pastor Tom Jelinek in one ad. “Sadly, Congress has failed to heed these biblical warnings.”

The ads are sponsored by the liberal evangelical group Sojourners, which has teamed up with other Christian organizations from across the political spectrum to form a coalition called the Circle of Protection.

The coalition includes black and Hispanic clergy organizations as well as more conservative groups, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The group’s Web site poses a question designed to send chills through any politician who looks to churches and religious groups as a source of large voting blocs: “What would Jesus cut?”

Coalition leaders met last week at the White House for 40 minutes with Obama, admonishing him to protect Medicaid, food stamps, aid to poor women with infant children, international development aid and other programs specifically targeted to the poor.

The group is responding to the heated battle between congressional Republicans and the White House over raising the country’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, which must be lifted before Aug. 2 or else the nation will go into default. Republicans seek drastic spending cuts and major reform of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security; Democrats want new revenue along with decreased spending.

At the White House meeting, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of New Mexico told Obama that his willingness to defend the poor from steep cuts would be a “fundamental moral measure” of his administration.

“There seem to be several ‘givens’ in this debate,” Ramirez said, according to an e-mail from his office. “For Republicans, no new taxes is a given. For some Democrats, no cuts in Medicare are a given. For others, no cuts in military spending is a given. For your administration, some additional revenues are a given. Sadly, if you listen to the debate it seems that protecting the poor and vulnerable is not a given. That is why we are here.”

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, said Tuesday that he was encouraged by Obama’s reaction to the group. The president, he noted, even cited the Bible during the private meeting in the Roosevelt Room, alluding to Jesus’s expressions of concern for the “least of these.”

But Wallis and several others expressed dismay that Obama, in his nationally televised address Monday night, focused mostly on protecting the middle class. “No mention of the poor or the most vulnerable,” Wallis said.

Aides to Obama and congressional leaders did not respond immediately to requests for comment on the radio ad campaign.

Coalition officials said they have met in recent weeks with Reid and top aides to Boehner, as well as with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

The religious leaders said Tuesday that they were reviewing the latest proposals from Reid and Boehner for steep cuts to the federal budget. They expressed concern that both plans appeared to endorse trillions of dollars in cuts that, according to the church leaders, would most likely hit the poor hard.

David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, one of the coalition partners, said the speaker’s plan appeared to include an exemption for means-tested programs if automatic cuts are triggered, which Beckmann called a welcome development.

“I don’t think they want to make kids hungrier,” he said. “But if you have deep, unspecified cuts in spending, they will make kids hungrier.”

Read more on PostPolitics.

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