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Romney woos Tea Party with Social Security, Medicare plan

Brad KnickerbockerThe Christian Science Monitor

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has laid out his fiscal plan “to turn around the federal government” by axing or reducing programs – including what could be significant changes to Medicare and Social Security.

As might be expected from a relatively moderate Republican, Mr. Romney’s plan is not as drastic as others, such as fellow GOP presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul’s, which would eliminate several departments of federal government, or House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s controversial plan, which Democrats say would “kill Medicare.”

Still, Romney’s pledge to “make government simpler, smaller, and smarter,” declared Friday in a speech to the tea party-aligned group Americans for Prosperity, was embraced by Congressman Ryan. That’s sure to set it up as a target for Democrats and for President Obama, as the incumbent president looks for ways to win reelection at a time when the US economy sputters and congressional Republicans reject his jobs-creating efforts.

“This is a great development,” Ryan told Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, regarding Romney. “It shows that the elusive adult conversation is taking place.... This tracks perfectly with the House budget.”

Among the elements in Romney’s plan:

  • Cap federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product (it was 24.3 percent last year), which would require spending cuts of approximately $500 billion per year in 2016, assuming the economy grows about about 4 percent annually. (The US grew by 2.8 percent in 2010.) The plan would also reverse defense cuts in Obama administration budgets.
  • Cut nonsecurity discretionary spending to below 2008 levels by cutting such spending 5 percent across the board.
  • Privatize Amtrak, saving $1.6 billion.
  • Reduce subsidies for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Legal Services Corporation, saving $600 Million.
  • Eliminate Title X family planning funding that benefits groups like Planned Parenthood, saving $300 million.
  • Reduce foreign aid by $100 million, particularly to countries the US borrows money from, including China.
  • Reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent through attrition, align federal employee compensation with the private sector, and repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which, according to Romney, “forces the government to pay above-market wages, insulating labor unions from competition and driving up project costs by approximately 10 percent.”

On Social Security, Romney would “gradually raise the retirement age to reflect increases in longevity and slow the growth in benefits for higher-income retirees.”

Similarly, Romney indicates a gradualism on Medicare.

“First, Medicare should not change for anyone in the program or soon to be in it,” he said in his speech Friday. “We should honor our commitments to our seniors.”

“Tomorrow’s seniors should have the freedom to choose what their health coverage looks like,” he continued. “Younger Americans today, when they turn 65, should have a choice between traditional Medicare and other private health-care plans that provide at least the same level of benefits ... as with Social Security, the eligibility age should slowly increase to keep pace with increases in longevity.”

Many of the details in Romney’s plan are yet to be revealed, but his political competitors were quick to weigh in.

“He pandered to interest groups and offered timid reforms to government spending, all the while trying to convince voters he will magically balance the budget anyway,” said Tim Miller, the campaign spokesman of Jon Huntsman Jr., in a statement. “Governor Romney's plan that protects subsidies, the Defense Department, and nibbles around the edges on entitlements leaves no doubt that he has no realistic plan or intention to honestly balance the budget.”

Rick Perry’s campaign took the occasion to note Romney’s support for the 2008 Wall Street bailout, the subject of Mr. Perry’s latest YouTube video attacking Romney.

"Any proposal from Mitt Romney to reduce government spending that does not end government bailouts is not a serious plan to reduce government spending," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan in an e-mail to reporters.

Obama’s reelection campaign jumped in as well.

“Mitt Romney’s proposal … places a great burden on the middle class and the elderly, and instead of asking all Americans to do their fair share it continues to offer special breaks for large corporations, millionaires, and billionaires,” said Obama for America press secretary Ben LaBolt in a statement.

“Much of Mitt Romney’s plan is a carbon copy of the House Republicans’ budget,” Mr. LaBolt emphasized, tying Romney to Ryan. “It would wipe out investments essential to creating jobs and promoting growth and would leave millions of older Americans to fend for themselves by privatizing Medicare.”

In a web video, the Democratic National Committee said Romney’s plan would seriously hurt middle-class families, saying the plan was something "only a billionaire could love."