One week into a hunger strike, activists opposing budget cuts proposed by House Republicans said Monday that they made their first breakthrough on Capitol Hill, meeting with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to discuss their efforts.
But they took away no solid pledge of support.
The California Democrat did not promise to rescue the social programs that members of the HungerFast.org campaign seek to preserve, such as Head Start and the Women, Infants and Children feeding program. The activists argue that budget cuts proposed by Republicans fall disproportionately on the poor and hungry.
When asked whether Democrats will vote against a budget compromise that includes such cuts, Pelosi said, “I don’t think Democrats are very inclined to support this level of cuts, but let us see where they are.”
Organizers claim that since the fast began March 28, more than 30,000 people in a broad coalition that includes the Service Employees International Union, MoveOn.org and the Christian group Sojourners have joined in some capacity. Some have agreed to skip lunch until Congress settles the budget debate, while others have been on a liquid-only diet.
“As long as we’re focusing on nickel-and-diming poor people, we’re not having the debate that’s worthy of our country and our people. We’ve got to take it to the higher ground,” Pelosi said, thanking the activists for drawing attention to what may be at stake in the budget debates.
Tony Hall (D), a former Member from Ohio who went on a hunger strike in the 1990s to protest the closing of a Congressional committee, said he decided to participate because the stakes are high.
“Some cuts we are contemplating actually will kill people,” he said. After a week of drinking just water, the 69-year-old added apple juice to his diet Monday. “[The fast] reminds people, including elected officials, of what really is going on in the world and in their own country — that there are a lot of hungry people.”
But conservatives are seeking deeper cuts and dismiss the warnings of the hunger activists.
Levi Russell, a spokesman for Tea Party Express, said claims that the cuts will starve low-income families are “absurd and ridiculous to the extreme.”
“There have been tens and tens of billions of dollars added to the budget over the last number of years and the poor are just as poor as before,” Russell said.
Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, began fasting Friday and said the campaign is also a “spiritual act.”
Fasting is a way “to restore a moral dimension to a debate that has been about numbers and who has the upper hand politically,” Ruben added.
While MoveOn.org and other liberal groups are opposed to the $61 billion in budget cuts proposed by House Republican for the rest of the fiscal year, Ruben said they haven’t taken a position on the $33 billion compromise plan that is now being negotiated by Congressional leaders. Ruben said it was still unclear what program cuts would be included in the compromise plan.
The activists have reached out to Republican leaders as well, saying the risk to low-income families transcends partisan politics. They said that their efforts have just begun and that they hope that Members of Congress will soon join them in fasting.
Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis said his group backs cutting federal spending. But he and the others suggested Republicans focus on cutting corporate and energy subsidies instead of social programs.
“Reducing the deficit is a moral thing to do, as we hear around here. But how we reduce the deficit, that’s a moral issue too,” he said.
Bennett Roth contributed to this report.