WASHINGTON – U.S. Capitol Police arrested 115 religious activists who were protesting a House Republican budget plan's cuts in social programs when they refused to clear the entrance to a congressional office building Wednesday.
"These are political choices being made that are hurting low-income people," said Jim Wallis, the event's organizer and founder of the Christian ministry group Sojourners. "Don't make them the brunt of your deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility."
Wallis called the House budget plan, which would produce $50 billion in savings over five years, "the real Christmas scandal," a reference to a campaign by some conservative Christian groups against the greeting "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
Wallis, who was arrested, said the group had little complaint with a more modest Senate plan.
Outside in the frigid cold for several hours, more than 200 demonstrators sang religious and holiday songs, prayed aloud and chanted, "Stop the cuts." Those who were peacefully arrested and led away from the steps of the Cannon House Office Building faced booking and a $50 fine, said Sgt. Kimberly O'Brien, a Capitol Police spokeswoman.
The prayer vigil was one of dozens taking place around the country.
"When you look at all denominations you see a real commitment to address the needs of the poor," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. "And here we have a budget that does just the opposite."
The group gained support in the Capitol, where the Senate again went on record in opposition to cutting Medicaid benefits and the food stamp program as House-Senate negotiators continued talks on the budget measure.
The House's bill would create savings in part by increasing premiums and co-payments for Medicaid benefits and letting states scale back benefits. It also would cut about 250,000 beneficiaries from food stamp rolls.
The negotiators hoped to reach agreement on the budget bill before adjourning for the year. The chambers remained at odds over the Senate's plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
"It is absolutely imperative that we stay as long as it takes," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. "The American people want to see this Congress, this (Republican) majority reassert its commitment to fiscal discipline and limited government."
Wallis refused to consider the vigil a partisan affair, saying the religious and political spectrum was widely represented. "The media seems to think only abortion and gay marriage are religious issues," Wallis said. "Poverty is a moral issue, it's a faith issue, it's a religious issue."