MILFORD, N.H. — Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Thursday for the first time that he supports House Republicans' budget outline that calls for cuts to the federal deficit as well as federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Pawlenty told reporters that if he were president he would endorse the House lawmakers' plan. He has been dogged in recent days about the plan, which Democrats' say would privatize sacrosanct federal programs. The endorsement now links the White House contender with House lawmakers' potentially toxic proposals that were likely to be unpopular with seniors.
"As president, I'll have my own plan. (But) if I can't have that, and the bill came to my desk and I had to choose between signing or not Congressman Ryan's plan, of course I would sign it," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty has faced yes-or-no questions about the plan, designed by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, but has refused to give a direct answer. The GOP has embraced the budget and those who haven't have faced harsh criticism; one voter in Iowa called former House Speaker Newt Gingrich an embarrassment for his criticism of the budget.
For his part, Pawlenty has tried to straddle the issues, promising his own budget plan to announce in the coming weeks. It appeared to be his tactic as he visited an electronics manufacturing plant during his first campaign stop in New Hampshire as a presidential candidate.
"I think Paul (Ryan) should be applauded," Pawlenty toward reporters. "I really like his courage and leadership in getting a plan out there. I like the general direction of his plan."
He added, "As to the Medicare part of it, we'll have our own plan and it will have some differences, but if his plan came to my desk, and I wasn't able to pass my own, I would sign it."
Republican lawmakers in Washington are pushing an ambitious spending agenda that has allowed Democrats to paint the GOP as a party willing to make deep cuts to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Criticism of the budget outline helped Democrats win a special election in New York on Tuesday and could provide a blueprint for Democrats to roll back Republican gains in 2010.
Democrats and their allies were quick to note Pawlenty's endorsement.
"Despite a few throw-away caveats, Tim Pawlenty just said that he would agree to sign a plan that would end Medicare by turning it into a privatized voucher system," said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Protect Your Care, a group tasked with defending Democrats' health care overhaul. "It is unconscionable to throw seniors into the private market while doubling their out-of-pocket costs."
The GOP-controlled House passed the plan earlier this year; the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected it on Wednesday.
The field of likely 2012 presidential candidates has worked hard to keep themselves away from the budget document.
On Wednesday, after a speech on budget priorities to a Washington think tank, Pawlenty refused to answer a yes-or-no question whether he would back the House's plan. He said Ryan's budget was a starting point.
The Ryan proposal for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 calls for cutting spending by $5.8 trillion over 10 years. Ryan would reduce tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, and eliminate various tax loopholes.
The blueprint aims to convert Medicare, the health insurance program for older people, into a subsidy or voucher program for future beneficiaries – those now under age 55. Many probably would pay more for medical services.
Medicaid, which helps the poor and disabled, would become a state-run block grant program, a shift that would reduce federal spending by billions of dollars.