Appealing to tea party voters as he seeks to regain his front-runner status in the Republican presidential race, Mitt Romney outlined plans Friday for deep federal spending cuts and dramatic changes to popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare that immediately drew fire from Democrats.
Before a polite audience that gathered for the Americans for Prosperity summit in Washington, Romney said he hoped to cut $500 billion from the federal budget by 2016 – a goal intended to pare back federal spending from 24% to 20% of the nation's Gross Domestic Product.
To reach that target, Romney's campaign said he would save $100 billion by capping Medicaid spending for the poor and giving control of that program to the states. He also called for raising the eligibility age for Social Security benefits and cutting the level of non-security discretionary spending to pre-2008 levels.
Perhaps the most controversial changes were in the Medicare program (though the campaign said they would not affect current seniors or anyone nearing retirement).
Borrowing some elements from Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney's plan calls for transforming Medicare to a "premium support system" that would give seniors a set amount of money that they could use to purchase a healthcare plan. In a move the campaign said would encourage competition and lower the program's cost, Medicare would be one of many plans available in the marketplace. All of the plans would have to offer a level of coverage comparable to what Medicare provides today, Romney aides said.
"The future of Medicare should be marked by competition, choice, and by innovation -- rather than bureaucracy, stagnation, and bankruptcy," Romney said in his speech. "Our path for the future of Social Security and Medicare is honesty and security. Theirs is demagoguery and deception, and that's one more reason they'll lose."
Still, many pertinent details were not available on Friday. Romney advisors said they were still working on how a Romney administration would set the initial level of premium support and how much that defined amount would increase over time as medical costs rose. Though Romney noted that wealthier seniors would be asked to pay more than low-income seniors, his campaign did not offer any further detail on how those differentiations would be made.
Similarly with Social Security, Romney said in his speech, the eligibility age should "slowly increase to keep pace with increases in longevity," but he did not explain when those changes would begin or how gradually they would be phased in.
The Democratic Party branded the proposal as one "only a billionaire could love," while President Obama's presidential campaign said the spending reductions would "devastate key middle-class programs."
In a memo to reporters Friday, the Obama campaign's policy director, James Kvaal, said Romney was operating "under the false assumption that we can just cut our way to prosperity" and accused him of "echoing the tea party agenda" and undermining the efforts of the bipartisan deficit reduction committee, which is slated to release its recommendations soon.
Kvaal said changes to the Medicare plan could increase out-of-pocket costs for seniors and argued that the reductions Romney had laid out appeared to fall short of his $500-billion goal.