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Ex-Congressman Fasts To Protest Budget Cuts

LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's hard to get heard when there are so many interests lobbying Congress against spending cuts. So, a former congressman and some religious leaders and their followers have begun to fast to help preserve funds for the hungry and the poor. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

Former Representative TONY HALL (Democrat, Ohio; Executive Director, Alliance to End Hunger): I'm wearing shirts now I haven't worn in a long time.

PAM FESSLER: Meet Tony Hall. A few weeks ago, the 69-year-old might have been called a little pudgy. Today, he hikes up his pants before he sits.

Mr. HALL: I am the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger.

FESSLER: He's also a former Democratic congressman from Ohio who made headlines in the 1990s by going on a 22-day hunger strike. He was protesting what he saw as congress's failure to address the problems of the poor. And today?

Mr. HALL: Well, I'm in my 18th day of a hunger fast. I started off as a water-only fast and now I'm doing liquids. And really what we're trying to do is raise awareness.

FESSLER: So far, he's lost about 18 pounds. But Hall says it's not so bad, especially when thousands of people around the world die each day of malnutrition and millions of Americans worry about their next meal. He worries what will happen if lawmakers accept proposed cuts in food stamps and foreign aid.

Mr. HALL: They have a moral obligation when they look at this budget not only to cut the budget but to cut it in a righteous way.

FESSLER: But what is that righteous way. House Speaker John Boehner recently said that reducing the nation's debt, unburdening future generations is also a moral obligation. Many Republicans say even programs for the poor have flab that can be trimmed. Hall thinks there's more of that in defense and Medicare.

(Soundbite of pages turning)

FESSLER: He opens his bible to the Old Testament, Isaiah 58 - his inspiration.

Mr. HALL: (Reading) Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wonder or shelter? And when you see the naked to clothe him?

FESSLER: But Hall, who spent more than 20 years in Congress, knows you can't just rest on your morals to have an impact.

Mr. HALL: Hi, I'm Tony Hall, to see the senator.

FESSLER: He's also been meeting regularly with former colleagues. Today, it's Republican Senator John Boozman of Arkansas, a good guy, says Hall. After a lengthy meeting behind closed doors, the two emerge.

Mr. HALL: See you, senator.

Senator JOHN BOOZMAN (Republican, Arkansas): Take care, John.

Mr. HALL: OK.

Mr. BOOZMAN: Appreciate you.

FESSLER: Later, Boozman says Hall is widely respected.

Mr. BOOZMAN: And so when he's concerned, you know, many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, you know, are wondering what the deal is. And so, as a result of that, I think that that helps us look really hard at the issue.

FESSLER: And indeed, a bill to keep the government running for the rest of this year dropped some safety net cuts that Hall and others had opposed.

Outside, Tony Hall is pleased. He says Boozman offered to take him to meet House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who's proposed some steep cuts in food aid.

Mr. HALL: And he said, look, I'll go over there with you and we'll sit down and talk to him. You can tell him your concerns. And he's a good guy and let's see what happens.

FESSLER: In the meantime, Hall says he'll continue to fast - at least until Easter.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.