Rep. Paul Ryan spars with US bishops over criticism of budget cuts

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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sought to diminish the importance of letters criticizing his budget from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), saying the group doesn’t represent all bishops.

“These are not all the Catholic bishops, and we just respectfully disagree,” Ryan told Fox News on Thursday.

But USCCB spokesman Don Clemmer told The Hill that the letters do represent all Catholic bishops, as they were penned by members of the church that were elected to represent the bishops on policy matters at the national level.

“Bishops who chair USCCB committees are elected by their fellow bishops to represent all of the U.S. bishops on key issues at the national level,” Clemmer said. “The letters on the budget were written by bishops serving in this capacity.”

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 letter criticized cuts in the Ryan budget to food stamps and other assistance programs for the poor.

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, Bishop Stephen Blaire, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, singled out food stamp programs, urging lawmakers to reject “unacceptable cuts to hunger and nutrition” programs for “moral and human reasons.” He 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.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), also a Catholic, pushed back at the bishops’ criticism as well, saying in a Wednesday press conference that the bishops need to “take a bigger look.”

“I want them to take a bigger look,” Boehner said. “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.