Mitt Romney and almost all of the other main Republican presidential candidates… (Kevork Djansezian, Getty…)
Reporting from Washington and Manchester, N.H. — The almost unanimous opposition by Republican presidential contenders to Washington's bipartisan debt limit deal reflects the pull of conservative — and particularly "tea party" — voters as the 2012 nominating contests near.
Mitt Romney, the early national front-runner, on Monday broke weeks of evasion on the topic by rejecting the agreement his party's leaders in Congress struck with President Obama and the Democrats. In a brief statement, the former Massachusetts governor said he "personally cannot support this deal" because it leaves open the possibility of future tax increases or further defense cuts.
Republican strategists said Romney's opposition reflected the political realities of the 2012 contest and, in Romney's case in particular, a need to protect his right flank against conservative rivals. That concern has, if anything, been enhanced by the likely candidacy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a strong favorite of many in the tea party movement. Perry has declined to take a position on the deal.
Among all top GOP presidential candidates, only former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. supported the agreement. Huntsman has been running to the left of the Republican field on a host of issues.
"I think most people would have considered [that] Mitt Romney, as the front-running Republican candidate, would most likely support the position of the Republican leadership in Washington," said Mike Dennehy, a Republican strategist not aligned with a candidate in the nomination fight. But Romney's position "illustrates how concerned the presidential candidates are with a potential backlash from conservative Republican voters."
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), asked at a Capitol Hill news conference about opposition from Romney and other GOP candidates, refused to answer directly. "Listen, I've got a big job to do here. Those running for president have their own aspirations," Boehner said. "My goal is to get this bill passed, signed into law, to solve this debt crisis and help get the American people back to work."
For weeks, Romney had attempted to distance himself from the Washington negotiations. His refusal to take sides in the debate over raising the debt ceiling had prompted sharp criticism from Democrats and Huntsman.
After Romney announced his opposition, former Obama White House spokesman Bill Burton accused him of having "undermined John Boehner and [Senate GOP leader] Mitch McConnell and given aid and comfort to those who prefer default over compromise. A man who claims strength in his ability to lead our nation's economy would let it default for the first time in its history."
But in private, some Democratic strategists praised Romney's tactics, which they saw as a general-election-minded effort to avoid close association with his party's more strident elements.
Huntsman, campaigning in New Hampshire, said a failure of the U.S. government to meet its debt obligations "would have been irresponsible."
Huntsman strategist John Weaver said Romney had been "completely cynical" by "giving mealy-mouthed support to what Speaker Boehner and other leaders have been trying to do, and then after the horse is out of the barn, putting his hands up in the air and acting shocked that he can't support anything."
Other GOP candidates had been opposed to the deal since its inception. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a consistent critic of Boehner's efforts on spending and the debt limit, said the deal "spends too much and doesn't cut enough. Someone has to say no. I will."
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the only other candidate able to cast a vote on the agreement, said in a posting on his government website that "frightening rhetoric about default and full faith and credit of the United States is being carelessly thrown around to ram through a bigger budget than ever, in spite of stagnant revenues."
Perry's spokesman, Mark Miner, said Monday that the governor had supported an earlier Republican debt reduction plan that failed to gain congressional approval but did not say what Perry thought of the final deal.
Some of the Republican opposition, like that of members of Congress, stemmed from the possibility that a deficit reduction commission created under the debt limit deal would include new tax revenue in its plan to cut another $1.5 trillion from the deficit over 10 years.
Obama has indicated, and spokesman Jay Carney confirmed, that the White House expects the bipartisan deficit reduction commission to include new revenue. But that would require the support of at least one of the panel's six Republican members.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted that "Boehner and McConnell should pledge only to appoint to the spending committee those who rule out tax increases."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who also opposed the agreement, released a statement from his spokesman, who said that 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."
West reported from Washington and Reston from Manchester.