EXETER, N.H. — Mitt Romney is tackling one of the 2012 presidential contest's most delicate issues today.
The Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts governor has released a broad plan to transform Medicare, the popular health-insurance program for the elderly. He addressed the lightning-rod issue and other spending cuts during a fiscal policy speech before an afternoon gathering of conservative activists at the Washington Convention Center, where the tea party-allied group Americans for Prosperity is holding a two-day event.
Romney has struggled to win over tea party supporters, and his cuts would not go as far as some would like. But he says he would slash federal spending by $500 billion in his first term as president.
On Medicare, Romney's plan is remarkably similar to the controversial proposal released by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan earlier in the year. Romney hasn't finalized many details, but he would offer future Medicare recipients an effective voucher to spend on private insurance or a version of the traditional program.
"The idea instead is to set the Medicare payment to provide each senior with money that they can go out use to go and buy a plan," a senior Romney adviser said before the speech. "In that respect, it's exactly the same exact thing as a Ryan plan."
The campaign couldn't say how much the change would save taxpayers. But a host of unrelated cuts would trim as much as a half trillion dollars over four years, he said.
Romney would strip federal subsidies of $1.6 billion from Amtrak, which could threaten the survival of the popular rail network. He would force $600 million from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And he would trim foreign aid by $100 million.
Romney told a New Hampshire audience Thursday night that unless the U.S. takes drastic action, it is headed for a fiscal crisis equal to that in Greece. And he said the fight to cut spending will affect both America's national security and its moral standing in the world.
"We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in," Romney said.
Among his priorities is a plan to repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which Romney says would save $95 billion. The savings to taxpayers, however, would be far less. While politically difficult, a full repeal would also undo spending cuts and tax increases elsewhere, ultimately slicing the federal budget deficit by $16 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Romney's proposals may please some conservatives, but it stops well short of a plan released last month by Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who says he would cut $1 trillion in federal spending in his first year in office. Paul, who is also seeking the GOP presidential nomination, wants to eliminate the Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Interior and Education departments.
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Romney's speech comes as congressional leaders struggle to craft a bipartisan plan cut the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion. That debate includes the popular entitlement programs Medicare and Social Security, so it's possible the next president could inherit a dramatically changed system.
Romney favors raising the retirement age for younger workers and limiting increases for wealthier recipients. And on Medicare, he says the government would issue a voucher, or "premium support," to seniors to purchase their own plan.
"There would be a premium support level that governor Romney I think would describe as generous and appropriate that hasn't been determined yet," a Romney adviser said Friday.