WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - More than 100 religious activists protesting proposed cuts to health care and other social welfare programs were arrested on Wednesday after they staged a peaceful sit-in at a government building near the U.S. Capitol.
Braving wintry weather with temperatures below freezing, the protesters held placards declaring that "budgets are moral documents."
Congress is trying to wrap up its 2005 legislative session this week and a high priority of conservative Republicans is a budget bill that would cut $35 billion to $50 billion over five years from a range of programs, including health care for the poor and elderly and possibly child care, student loans and food stamps.
"Someone's praying Lord, stop the cuts," chanted the protesters before U.S. Capitol Police officers moved in to arrest the protesters, who were camped out at the Cannon building that houses the offices of some lawmakers.
Sgt. Kimberly O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police, said 115 protesters had been arrested and charged with blocking the Cannon building entrance. They were expected to be released later on Wednesday after posting $50 bonds.
Call to Renewal, a network of churches and other religious organizations, was planning "local prayer vigils" in 32 states on Wednesday to protest the budget cuts.
Republicans argue that the spending reductions will help offset the more than $60 billion in Hurricane Katrina aid approved by Congress that otherwise would add to huge U.S. budget deficits. The cuts also are intended to be a first crack at controlling growing "mandatory" programs that take up a huge portion of the U.S. budget.
Democrats counter that the spending cuts would hurt the poor and are simply a way to pay for continuing tax cuts aimed in part at helping the wealthiest Americans.
Even before Wednesday's protests, there were signs that the House of Representatives was stepping back from some of the spending cuts that have so angered Democrats and some moderate Republicans.
Rep. James Walsh, a New York Republican, told Reuters it was looking as if the spending-cut compromise being worked on by negotiators would abandon a House-passed plan for about $700 billion in food stamp cuts. That plan would have excluded an estimated 235,000 people from the aid.
Still unclear was whether Congress would come to an agreement on the spending reductions before recessing for the year.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were trying to defeat a massive spending bill that would fund most U.S. health care, education and labor programs through next September. They are opposed to the $1.4 billion in cuts to those programs.
The House was expected to pass the bill on Wednesday, but its fate in the Senate later in the week was uncertain.