Washington DC, US

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other Democratic lawmakers joined a group of mostly liberal-leaning religious leaders on Wednesday to voice faith-rooted support for federal legislation central to President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda.

Pelosi, a Catholic who recently met with Pope Francis, invoked her faith while drawing attention to specific proposals in the legislation that impact children - namely, universal preschool and the child tax credit.

US Washington Build Back Better Nancy Pelosi

US House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference about faith-rooted support for Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, on Wednesday, 20th October outside the Capitol building in Washington, DC. PICTURE: RNS/Jack Jenkins

Standing in front of a podium that read “Build Back Holy,” she referenced Jesus' call in the Bible "to let the little children come to me". She said lawmakers should, like Jesus, “make sure that all children have the opportunity that they deserve - they’re all blessings containing their spark of divinity.”

The news conference occurred as a slate of faith groups, organised by the Washington Interfaith Staff Community, convened a 12-hour vigil outside the Capitol in support of the sweeping government overhaul package, also known as the Build Back Better bill. Negotiations have been strained: Biden and lawmakers have reportedly already scaled back from a roughly $US3.5 trillion spending bill to something closer to $US2 trillion.

But speakers at the conference expressed frustration with the potential cuts, especially any attempt by more conservative Democrats - particularly West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin - or Republicans to scale back a proposed expansion of the child tax credit or child care provisions.

“The people in the building behind me have long prioritised infrastructure, such as fixing our roads and bridges, but we cannot ignore that child care is a vital part of infrastructure too,” said Sheila Katz, head of the National Council of Jewish Women. “The human provisions in the Build Back Better agenda are equally as essential to rebuilding our economy as revitalising the streets we drive on every day.”

Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals also expressed support for the child tax credit, calling it “a smart investment in our nation’s future".

They were echoed by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who said her Catholic faith undergirds her long-standing support for an expanded child tax credit.

“My inspiration, what motivates me, has always been grounded in the basic principles of Catholic social teaching: helping the poor, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the least among us - and that includes our children,” she said. “I’ve been honoured to fight side by side with all of you to implement the expanded and improved child tax credit.”

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas stressed the importance of the moment, saying, “If there was ever a time we needed prayer, we sure do need it now".

After explaining she had just left a meeting that discussed linking the Build Back Better bill’s fate to a separate infrastructure bill, Lee asked for prayers that lawmakers would be able to recognise each other’s “pain.”

“If you have a pain about a freeway, or a dam, or pothole, then understand pain when I don't have a doctor, I don't have childcare...and I cannot get access to healthcare,” she said.

Lee also expressed frustration with the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires a 60-vote threshold to pass many major bills. Religious activists have repeatedly called for eliminating the practice throughout the summer, arguing it has held up the passage of several pieces of liberal legislation despite Democratic control of the Senate.

Some faith-based activists who were among those arrested in front of the White House on Tuesday called for revising or even eliminating the filibuster to help pass laws to protect voting rights. But a major piece of voting rights legislation, known as the Freedom to Vote Act - a compromise bill widely seen as an effort to appease Manchin - was blocked by the filibuster Wednesday afternoon.

“We must pray for the ending of the filibuster,” Lee said, her voice rising. “It is a destructive condemnation of life, of people’s humanity. It doesn’t uplift, it downplays. It denies. It diminishes. It eliminates.”

Sojourners founder Rev Jim Wallis, who now works at Georgetown University, took at shot at conservative activists and lawmakers who have advocated for religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccines, saying: “How is not taking a vaccine a religious issue, but helping the poor is not? Read the Bible!”

Other religious speakers included Rev Jennifer Butler of advocacy group Faith in Public life, who framed potential cuts to the bill as “sinful”; Sister Carol Zinn of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who invoked Matthew 25; John Carr of Georgetown, who described the child tax credit as "pro-life"; Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who led the crowd in a chant of “Build Back Better”; and Rev Leslie Copeland-Tune of the National Council of Churches, who closed her talk with prayer.

“We pray that we would have the courage to do what has to be done, even as you turn the hearts of those sitting in places of power and privilege to do what is right, to do what is just, to do what is necessary for all of your people - especially the most vulnerable,” she said.

US Washington Build Back Better Rev Leslie Copeland Tune

 Rev Leslie Copeland-Tune, of the National Council of Churches, speaks on Wednesday, 20th October, outside the Capitol building in Washington, DC. PICTURE: RNS/Jack Jenkins

Representatives Donald McEachin of Virginia, Lloyd Doggett of Texas and Terri Sewell of Alabama also addressed reporters.

The demonstration was one of several staged by religious leaders in Washington this week, most of which are designed to draw attention to ongoing legislative fights. In addition to protests concerning the Build Back Better package and voting rights, a group of religious and secular activists planned to gather outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence on Wednesday to ask for her help on immigration reform.

Activists say they want her to override the Senate parliamentarian’s recommendation to exclude a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants from the budget reconciliation bill.