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Sen. Durbin Touts Federal Funding for Food Assistance Programs

Illinois' Senior Senator says a Congressional 'super committee' tasked with finding $1.5 trillion dollars in federal savings over the next 10 years has their work cut out for them.

The bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, has until Thanksgiving to come up with a plan, and then sell it to the rest of Congress.

It's unclear where possible budget cuts may happen, but Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said food assistance programs should be preserved.

During a visit Friday morning to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank in Urbana, Durbin underlined the importance of these services, saying food banks across the state have seen a 50 percent uptick in food assistance requests during the last couple of years. Durbin also pointed out that the Eastern Illinois Foodbank has increased food distribution by 24 percent during the same period.

"My hope is that as we look for ways to cut spending, and we don't do it at the expense of feeding children and families that are struggling," Durbin said. "I hope that we can all agree - both parties can agree - on a good starting point there to preserve the safety net."

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank said last year it gave out 6.8 million pounds of food, with federal commodities making up about a quarter of that stock from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

"It's been a really important program for food banks during the recession," said Cheryl Precious, director of development at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. "We're worried about it to say the least."

Precious said the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is anticipating a 50 percent reduction in federal commodities for this upcoming year.

"That's going to significantly impact us," Precious said. "We're going to have to make up that food by purchasing or increasing donations or we're just going to have to get creative about it."

Durbin also emphasized the importance of social safety net programs - like unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and job re-training programs. He said he hopes the country's financial problems and the recent downgrade of the nation's credit rating by Standard and Poors serve as a wakeup call to the 12-lawmakers on the bipartisan deficit reduction committee.

"If they go in with a spirit of bipartisanship and compromise where both sides are willing to give, we can get this resolved," Durbin said. "If they walk into the door with preconceived notions and political positions that are non-negotiable, nothing is going to happen. It's going to fail."

Durbin wouldn't comment on specific programs that should be cut, but he said he would like to see tax breaks for the wealthiest people trimmed back.

"If there's no agreement, we go into automatic cuts in both the defense and veterans side of it, as well as the other non-defense spending," he said. "I don't believe we can rationalize cutting the safety net in America when so many working families life from pay check to paycheck, and many with a paycheck can't make ends meet."

Meanwhile, Illinois' other US senator, Republican Mark Kirk, weighed in on the Congressional committee's task ahead during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago. Kirk said he does not think there is consensus in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for any tax hikes.

Congress is in recess until after Labor Day. Kirk said the joint commission should start meeting next Monday. He also urged President Obama to recall Congress to get to work on the nation's debt problems.

"Congress should not be in recess right now," Kirk said. "We see tremendous anxiety with the potential of the U.S. to go into recession and one of the greatest ways to restore confidence is, not to have a speech and not to lay out a set of vague principles, but to see the elected representatives of the American people working on entitlement reforms right away."

If the committee fails to meet its Thanksgiving deadline to come up with a plan, or if Congress rejects their proposal, then $1.2 trillion dollars in automatic budget cuts would go into effect. Critics are expressing doubt that the bipartisan panel will overcome its stark political differences.

(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)