WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said Sunday he would have voted for the House Republican budget plan, which includes a Medicare proposal that he criticized last week and then backed off after fellow conservatives denounced his stand.
The former House speaker also said he expects the Medicare plan to be modified.
Gingrich spent much of the first week of his presidential campaign explaining his comments and then apologizing for calling Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal "right-wing social engineering" during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Ryan's plan essentially would replace the federal health care program with a voucher system for buying insurance.
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, appeared on NBC himself Sunday and called Gingrich's description of his proposal "deeply inaccurate" and a "gross mischaracterization." Still, he played down the flap.
"We've got to get beyond this," said Ryan, R-Wis. "And we've got to get onto a serious conversation about what it takes to fix the fiscal problems in this country. And if we don't tackle these problems now while we have time, they're going to tackle us."
The Republican-controlled House passed the Ryan budget largely along party lines, but the Democratic Senate has yet to take it up. Ryan said he was "absolutely" willing to negotiate the Medicare proposal within the budget plan, an acknowledgment of reality given that Democrats control the Senate and President Barack Obama would veto a Medicare plan he found unacceptable.
Gingrich, interviewed the same morning on CBS' "Face the Nation," repeated that he had erred in his statements on NBC and noted that he had apologized to Ryan for them. He said he had meant to speak to a general principle that Washington shouldn't impose large-scale change on people and hailed Ryan for beginning a process for explaining what Republicans favor in tackling long-term deficits.
"The American people have to have time to ask us questions, to modify the plan if necessary, to get to a point where people are comfortable with it," Gingrich said. "I probably used unfortunate language about social engineering. But my point was really a larger one that neither party should impose on the American people something that they are deeply opposed to."
Ryan's Medicare plan would not affect people over 55 and would not take effect for 10 years. Gingrich said he would modify the plan to start much earlier and to allow people a choice.
Gingrich also acknowledged that he no longer supports a mandate to require people to buy insurance. The challenge, he said, is determining how to maximize individual freedom yet make sure that people have some responsibility for their debts.
"I do not believe in mandates. In fact, I think that in many ways they're unconstitutional both on religious liberty grounds and on personal liberty grounds," Gingrich said. "There are a lot of people who refuse to pay for their health care, including people with money. And so we're trying to find a way to match both."