Boehner chides bishops for not seeing big picture on budget

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pushed back at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops's criticism of the GOP's budget plan, saying the bishops need to “take a bigger look.”

The bishops had criticized the plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for its cuts to food stamps and other assistance programs for the poor.

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“I want them to take a bigger look,” Boehner said at a Wednesday press conference. “And the bigger look is, if we don't make decisions, these programs won't exist, and then they'll really have something to worry about.”

Ryan made a similar defense, telling The Hill on Tuesday that the Obama administration is accelerating a debt crisis that would hurt the poor far more than any budget cuts.

Boehner, a Catholic, acknowledged that the bishops had a moral argument in pushing to preserve aspects of the budget that provide aid to the poor, but said if the United States can’t get its finances in order, those programs would be completely eliminated through a fiscal crisis.

“There won't be these programs, and I don't know how often some of us have to talk about the fact that you can't spend $1.3 trillion more than what you bring in — that's what's going to happen this year, $5 trillion worth of debt over the last five years — and think that this can continue,” Boehner said.

“When you look at the fact that we have to make hard decisions, it's about trying to make sure that we're able to preserve these programs that are critically important for the poorest in our society.”

On Tuesday, the bishops sent the fourth in a series of letters to the House and Senate criticizing the House-passed budget for failing to meet certain “moral criteria” by disproportionately cutting programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people.” The letters also pressured some House committees to maintain current low-income assistance programs.

The letters follow Ryan’s comments last week that his Catholic faith shaped the budget he authored. He also argued the budget is consistent with Catholic teachings.

In a letter sent to the House Agriculture Committee on Monday, the bishops singled out food-stamp programs, urging lawmakers to reject “unacceptable cuts to hunger and nutrition” programs for “moral and human reasons.” They said spending cuts should instead be made to subsidy programs that “disproportionately go to large growers and agribusiness.”

“Cuts to nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find employment,” said the letter, signed by Bishop Stephen Blaire. “These cuts are unjustified and wrong.”

A leadership memo obtained by The Hill from Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to GOP members said that cuts to SNAP would go to the floor for a vote in early May, along with a package of other spending cuts designed to circumvent the sequestration mechanism triggered when the supercommittee failed to reach a budget deal last year.

On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee approved $33 billion in cuts over 10 years to food assistance programs. According to the GOP leadership memo, the cuts are designed to tighten eligibility standards for food stamps and eliminate loopholes to prevent abuse.

— Russell Berman and Julian Pecquet contributed.