By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican in the Congress on Wednesday defended his party's proposed deficit-cutting federal budget plan against complaints by Roman Catholic bishops that it would hurt the poor and violate certain "moral criteria."
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner argued that matters would worsen, with the government eventually unable to afford programs for the needy, unless it stops spending more money than it takes in.
Boehner, who is Catholic, acknowledged that the bishops have a "moral argument," but said, "I want them to take a bigger look."
"The bigger look is if we don't make decisions (to slash spending), these programs won't exist, and then they will really have something to worry about," Boehner said at his weekly news conference.
In defending the Republicans' proposed spending cuts, Boehner did not mention another option to help reduce the deficit - raising taxes, which his party opposes.
The spending plan drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican who has become a hero to many conservatives, has virtually no chance of becoming law because it is opposed by President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats who control the U.S. Senate.
Yet its proposals to slash spending, particularly by shrinking social safety net programs for the poor, promise to make it a source of debate through the November 6 congressional and presidential elections.
Ryan proposed major cuts to programs such as food stamps and the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor while reducing tax rates for the wealthiest Americans and for corporations as it shrinks deficits and debt accumulation.
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, Ryan said his Catholic faith helped shape his budget.
"The preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don't keep people poor, don't make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty," Ryan told CBN.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had no immediate response to Boehner's comments.
But in recent weeks, it has sent letters to Capitol Hill, criticizing the Ryan budget that has been embraced by the party's presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
In these letters, bishops called for "a circle of protection" around the poor and offered "moral criteria" to guide budget choices.
"Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity," they wrote, adding that the "government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote common good for all."
Boehner said: "If we don't begin to make some decisions about getting our fiscal house in order, there won't be a safety net."
"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.
"We have to make hard decisions," Boehner said. "It's about trying to make sure that we are able to preserve these programs that are critically important for the poorest in our society."
The critique of the Republican budget plan by the bishops follows a sharp dispute earlier in the year between U.S. Catholic leaders and President Barack Obama, a Democrat, over contraception.
The Obama administration has mandated that nearly all health insurance plans provide free birth control by this summer, with limited accommodations for religious institutions that oppose contraception on moral grounds. Top Catholic bishops have blasted that mandate as an attack on religious freedom.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro and David Lawder; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Will Dunham)