ABC News’ Shushannah Walshe (@shushwalshe) reports:
A tentative debt-ceiling deal has gained some momentum in Congress, but Republican presidential candidates are lining up against House Speaker John Boehner’s compromise. Only one active candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, said he would support it.
Republican frontrunner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has stayed on the sidelines during the debate, not commenting on the evolving legislation. It could be a good move politically but, as a candidate who has consistently campaigned on the issue of the economy being in his wheelhouse, it has opened him up to criticism from his 2012 GOP rivals and Democrats.
Romney has limited his public comments to support for the GOP “Cut, Cap and Balance” legislation that went nowhere. He reaffirmed his position this morning, stressing in a statement that he would support that legislation if he were in the Oval Office and not the Boehner compromise.
“As president, my plan would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced , not one that opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table. President Obama’s leadership failure has pushed the economy to the brink at the eleventh hour and 59th minute. While I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican Members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal,” Romney said in the statement.
Republican Jon Huntsman put out a statement Sunday evening supporting the final deal with some hesitation. "While this framework is not my preferred outcome, it is a positive step toward cutting our nation's crippling debt,” he said.
He encouraged lawmakers to vote to pass the deal because it “promises cuts commensurate with the debt-ceiling increase, forces a vote on a much-needed federal balanced budget amendment and provides the only avenue to avoid default.”
The statement also included a not-so veiled critique of Romney’s involvement in the debate, something his campaign says Huntsman will continue on the trail.
"While some of my opponents ducked the debate entirely, others would have allowed the nation to slide into default and President Obama refused to offer any plan, I have been proud to stand with congressional Republicans working for these needed and historic cuts. A debt crisis like this is a time for leadership, not a time for waiting to see which way the political winds blow,” Huntsman said in the statement.
Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller had a more pointed response to Romney’s near silence on the topic. “Not only has Gov. Romney shown a complete lack of leadership during this critical debt fight, he has astonishingly refused to even offer his view on whether our nation defaulting is a concern. Americans want a president who is going to take the lead on big issues facing our country, not hide from them in an attempt to avoid offending anyone.”
Despite the criticism, Republican strategists think that Romney is making the right move. Brian Donahue, partner at GOP communications firm Craft Media Digital, said it’s a “smart play” for Romney “not to engage.”
“It's like the old saying about wrestling with a pig in mud … you both get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Washington is the same way. You get yourself into these Beltway partisan fights and everyone gets dirty. Rarely does someone win,” Donahue said. “It's not a smart play for someone like Romney, who's on the sidelines, who doesn't know where the debate's going to turn to get involved. It’s an ugly debate and Romney is avoiding getting dirty. The entire issue is changing and you can be on the wrong side of it quickly.”
Donahue added that the smartest move for Huntsman — or any of the candidates — if he wanted to be part of the debate instead of going after Romney, is to present his own debt-ceiling plan.
"Clearly, Huntsman is baiting. It's murky waters and any candidate who gets in, will surely get tangled up,” Donahue said. “If a candidate presented a plan that would get us out of this mess, they would look like a powerhouse, but no presidential candidate has done that. Simply to step in an attempt gain support and use it as a political opportunity could backfire."
For others looking at the political moves of the candidates eager to replace Obama, however, it’s more important to look at how Romney will discuss the final debt-ceiling deal on the campaign trail than engaging on the debate as it was unfolding. GOP strategist John Feehery agreed that it would be “silly” for Romney to have supported the deal and he made the right move rejecting it.
“How could he support anything Obama does? He’s running against Obama. He’s got to show a different vision,” Feehery said. “Now we are starting the real debate over the status quo and real reform and frankly that’s where the heart of this matter will be. …Translating what this deal really means to folks back on the campaign trail that will be a big challenge and the vision of tax reform, entitlement reform, those issues will make very interesting campaign themes.”
It’s not just Romney’s primary rivals who are going after him for staying on the sidelines. Former White House spokesman Bill Burton hit Romney Sunday in a memo for Priorities USA Action, a Democratic SuperPAC that will help re-elect the president.
“Mitt Romney won’t show any leadership on the debt ceiling because he is more concerned with avoiding the ire of the Tea Party than preventing the first ever default on America’s obligations. While Romney has always been a political opportunist, this week demonstrates that even when America’s economy is at stake he doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the Tea Party,” Burton wrote in the memo.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has been the most vocally strident of the GOP candidates, and one of only two who can actually vote on the deal, stressed again that she will not vote to raise the debt ceiling.
She criticized the president, saying Obama, “got us into this mess, and it was you who wanted a $2.4 trillion dollar blank check to get you through the election.” In a Sunday evening statement, Bachmann said, “Americans want less spending, lower taxes to create jobs, and they don't want us to raise the debt ceiling.”
She concluded by saying she will be a no vote. "The president continues to press for a 'balanced approach,' which everyone knows is code for increased spending and taxes. Throughout this process, the president has failed to lead and failed to provide a plan. The 'deal' he announced spends too much and doesn't cut enough. This isn't the deal the American people 'preferred' either, Mr. President. Someone has to say no. I will."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also rejected the Boehner compromise with his spokesman saying today it’s “nothing to celebrate.”
“Only in Washington would the political class think it’s a victory when the government narrowly avoids default, agrees to go further into debt, and does little to reform a spending system that cannot be sustained by our children and grandchildren. While no further evidence was needed, this entire debt ceiling fiasco demonstrates that President Obama must be replaced,” spokesman Alex Conant said in a statement.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also released a statement saying he would not support the deal, "Avoiding default is not a solution to America’s jobs and debt crisis. This agreement only sets the stage for an enormous amount of work going forward – well beyond the next two years – on how to create jobs, reduce government spending, return to balanced budgets and pay off our debt."
GOP Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the other candidate — along with Bachmann — who will get a chance to vote on the deal, also voted against Boehner’s previous plan Friday evening. He issued a statement Monday afternoon reiterating that opposition.
“This deal will reportedly cut spending by only slightly over $900 billion over 10 years. But we will have a $1.6 trillion deficit after this year alone, meaning those meager cuts will do nothing to solve our unsustainable spending problem, said Paul in a statement issued by the campaign.
Paul adds that the formation of a debt commission will "accomplish nothing outside of providing Congress and the White House with another way to abdicate responsibility."
Rick Santorum waited to weigh in until Tuesday when he released a statement commending Boehner, McConnell and "the conservative leadership for moving the ball in the right direction."
But, he said he would not support the deal because it "does not go far enough.
"It is not one that would have been made by a Santorum Administration because it does not accomplish the necessary goal of balancing the budget."
Santorum also criticized his Republican rivals in congress for not being engaged in the debate. A not-so-veiled shot at Bachmann.
"It is also disappointing that those members of congress who want to be our president were not leaders in the legislature to advance the conservative cause. As president, I will be committed to passing a Balanced Budget Amendment to once and for all ensure we never again put our nation's fiscal health in jeopardy," the statement read.
Update: This story has been updated to include Congressman Ron Paul's and former Senator Rick Santorum's stances on the debt ceiling deal.