Pawlenty toes line on Ryan budget

Tim Pawlenty on Wednesday talked up his sweeping plans for fiscal reform before a Washington audience while deflecting questions about Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) controversial budget proposal.

Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, made his first appearance in the nation’s capital since officially announcing his presidential candidacy Monday, promising to “tell the truth” to voters on controversial topics.

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He declined to directly criticize Ryan’s budget plan and instead focused on his proposal, noting that it differs from Ryan’s on Social Security and Medicare and adding that it will be released in the “coming weeks and months.”

"I'd prefer to phrase it as what I think we should do,” Pawlenty told reporters when asked to name his main criticism of Ryan’s plan. “Our proposal will have similarities overall to the Ryan Roadmap. Our Medicare plan will be somewhat different.”

Pawlenty appeared at the libertarian Cato Institute, which gave him an A rating during his final year as Minnesota’s governor — a rating he has touted on the campaign trail.

His visit to Washington came on the same day Republicans were playing defense following GOP candidate Jane Corwin’s defeat in a special election for a House seat in upstate New York.

Democrats framed her defeat as a referendum on Ryan’s plan to transform Medicare into a “premium support” system, which they say will eventually privatize the popular, but fiscally troubled, entitlement program.

Pawlenty reiterated that his plan will be based on “payment reforms,” which he says will focus on altering the way the government pays healthcare providers, rather than provide seniors with federal funds to purchase their own health insurance, as Ryan’s plan does.

Democrats, who have pressured Pawlenty to say how he will vote on Ryan’s plan, pounced on his words, saying that he failed to take a position.

“For someone who promised ‘straight talk,’ he sure is starting to look like a card-carrying member of the [Mitt] Romney policy team,” said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for the Democratic outside spending group Protect Your Care. “They have both refused to give a yes or no answer if they would support the Republican budget that ends Medicare, and they are both going to have a plan that is similar to Ryan’s, but it’s going to also be different at the same time.”

Pawlenty has gone out of his way not to offend House Republicans with his rhetoric, while still distancing himself from their policy proposals.

After his speech, the candidate traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with small groups of House Republicans, the vast majority of whom voted for Ryan’s budget. Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen, both Minnesota Republicans and Pawlenty supporters, organized the meetings.

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Pawlenty also brushed aside accusations that he used gimmicks to keep Minnesota’s budget balanced during his governorship, which Democrats say undercuts his claim of sound fiscal stewardship.

The ex-governor focused much of his talk to a packed audience on his plan to reduce the size of the federal government.

He said he favors “the phasing-out and privatization” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and tough cutbacks for government employees.

Those include a salary freeze (with the exception of military members), shrinking the federal workforce by hiring one new worker for every two who retire and transitioning federal pensions from a defined benefit model to a defined contribution model.

Despite being pressured by an audience member on the size of the U.S.'s overseas military presence, he reiterated that he would not cut defense spending,

"I am not one that's going to stand before you and tell you I'm going to cut the defense budget," he said. 

But Pawlenty said that other tough choices, like reforming entitlements and ending ethanol subsidies, need to be made.

"The spirit of this is that there are no sacred cows,” he later added.

-- This story was updated at 5:02 p.m.