GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Tim Pawlenty opened up a new line of criticism against Republicans in Congress for their approach to the debt limit negotiations, though he acknowledged the reality that the ceiling will likely have to be raised at some point in the near future.
Speaking with reporters over breakfast the morning after the first debate of the GOP presidential primary race, the former Minnesota governor signaled that he will speak out against the compromise taking shape between the Republican majority in the House and the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House.
Republican congressional leaders such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have said they cannot get the kind of reforms they want with opposition from the Senate and the Obama administration. Rather than seek to cut spending and reduce debt right away, Republicans instead appear ready to negotiate to set goals for deficit reduction and rolled back spending.
Pawlenty called this kind of agreement unsatisfactory.
“I really hope they don’t just set some vague targets and call it good and move on. I really think that would be an underwhelming response to the challenge we face in terms of urgency and boldness,” Pawlenty said. “But I hope and believe that they will stand tough on this debt ceiling limit vote and use that as a way to force real meaningful and structural change.”
The debt ceiling is currently set at $14.3 trillion and the nation's debts will exceed that sometime around Aug. 2, the Treasury Department has said.
Asked for specifics, Pawlenty said that “ideally, a balanced budget amendment in the constitution would be terrific” as well as legislation that would limit spending.
“And I don’t mean some vague, we’ll find out later [spending caps], but some actual specific caps that are baked into law and have the force of law,” he said.
Pawlenty's demands track with those of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, such as Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.). DeMint said after the debate Thursday night that he would not support any presidential candidate who fell short of pushing the GOP to obtain a balanced budget amendment, even though most conservatives think such an objective is nearly impossible.
Pawlenty appears ready to reprise the role he played during the negotiations last month over the deal to fund the federal government for the remainder of the current fiscal year, through September. During the continuing resolution fight, Pawlenty laid into congressional Republicans for not achieving deeper spending cuts, falling short of their stated goal to cut $100 billion.
“These moments of being able to force the Washington bureaucracy and the politicians in Washington’s hands aren’t always frequent or dramatic and this is a great opportunity to force change,” Pawlenty said. “And they should leverage it to the hilt.”
Saying congressional Republicans should use the debt ceiling as leverage marks a move away from past statements in which Pawlenty more categorically said the debt ceiling should not be raised at all.
“We should not, we should not raise the debt ceiling,” Pawlenty said in February at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington. He made similar comments at a Tea Party meeting in Arizona and on "Fox News Sunday" in January.
Pawlenty made some comments at the time that indicated a debt ceiling increase might still be necessary later in the year. But he mostly focused on how the government could prioritize payments to ensure that default to creditors was avoided while overall spending levels were dramatically reduced.
Much of Pawlenty’s argument for how to handle the debate remains the same. But his focus on Friday showed a shift toward recommending Republicans negotiate structural budget and spending reforms in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling.
When asked whether he would vote against raising the ceiling himself if he were a lawmaker, Pawlenty said it would “depend on what the vote is.”
“If it’s simply raise the debt ceiling cap I would vote against it yes,” he said.