Romney proposes entitlement reform as part of fiscal policy

Mitt Romney tackled entitlement reform Friday as part of his broad fiscal policy speech to a major conservative group.

Romney unveiled details of his plan to reform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as president. In his speech, he acknowledged that entitlement reform is a tricky subject and characterized himself as the only candidate capable of making the necessary, difficult choices to enact reform.

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“In their current form, these programs will go bankrupt. I know that, you know that, and even our friends in the other party know that,” Romney said, steering clear of mentioning any of his rivals in the Republican field. “The difference is that I will be honest about strengthening and preserving them, and they won’t.”

On Social Security, Romney proposes to slowly raise the retirement age for benefits and slow the growth in benefits for those with higher incomes. He wants to turn Medicaid back over to the states.

Prior to the speech, Romney advisers emphasized the differences between Romney's plan for Medicare and that of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Romney's plan is similar to Ryan's in its approach to guaranteed premiums, or a voucher to spend on a private plan. But Romney would also retain the traditional Medicare system as an option for seniors who did not want to choose a private plan.

“Competition will lower costs and increase the quality of healthcare for tomorrow’s seniors,” the former Massachusetts governor said.

Romney delivered a speech mapping out his fiscal policy to Americans for Prosperity's “Defending the American Dream” summit in Washington, D.C. He received a tepid response from the crowd of Tea Party-affiliated fiscal conservatives, who offered the most enthusiastic reaction when he reiterated his promise to repeal President Obama's healthcare bill.

“I should've started with that line,” Romney joked.

By contrast, the crowd stood up and danced for Herman Cain, who followed Romney's speech but did not overlap with him on stage. Cain's campaign is fighting its way through allegations of sexual harassment from Cain's days as head of the National Restaurant Association during the '90s.

Conservatives have viewed Romney with suspicion, citing his changing stances on abortion and gay rights. But Romney has been touting his fiscal conservative credentials to the GOP electorate, which was part of his pitch Friday to the conservative-leaning group.

Romney, who relies on his business experience as one of his biggest strengths as a candidate, told the crowd he would reduce government spending to within 20 percent of the gross domestic product by the end of his first term and cap it at that level. He also pledged to privatize Amtrak; reduce subsidies to the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, and the Legal Services Corporation; reduce — but not eliminate — foreign aid; eliminate Title X family planning funding; and reduce the federal payroll by at least 10 percent.

Romney pledged to examine each federal program through the lens of one question: "Is this program so critical, so essential, that we should borrow money from China to pay for it?"

Romney also had a little fun with Democrats' “We Can't Wait” campaign, which Obama has used to push for executive action on jobs.

“The president has been traveling the country trying to get support for his new half-a-trillion-dollar stimulus bill. He keeps telling people, 'We can’t wait,' " Romney said. “To which I say, 'Yes, we can!' ”

Many of Romney's fiscal ideas corresponded to what this audience wanted to hear, and he won mild applause where he seemed most tuned into their concerns.

“[Obama's] fundamental error is that he believes government creates jobs and opportunity. He's wrong. He puts his faith in government. I put my faith in people,” Romney said.

The campaign of rival Jon Huntsman issued a statement through spokesman Tim Miller, slamming Romney for being “timid” and specifically noted Romney's use of a teleprompter.

“Gov. 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,” Miller said.

Huntsman and Romney are battling it out for a win in the New Hampshire primary. Both candidates are staking their campaigns on doing well in that early-voting state.