PHILADELPHIA -- When President Barack Obama told a Russian leader that he could be "more flexible" after the election -- during what he thought was a private conversation -- Mitt Romney came down like a hammer. He accused his Democratic rival of "pulling his punches with the American people" and hiding his real agenda.
Romney found himself in similar circumstances Monday after he was heard telling donors at a Florida fundraiser that while he planned to slash government programs, he probably would not share those plans with voters before November. Romney told guests at the Sunday night fundraiser that he might eliminate the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and that he would likely consolidate the Education Department "or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller."
The remarks, overheard by reporters from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal who were staked out on a sidewalk outside the event, were among the few specifics Romney has let loose about his plan to cut federal government spending to 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, from the current 24 percent, by 2016.
Democrats pounced, holding a "What's Mitt hiding?" conference call during which they argued that Romney's plans would decimate programs that help middle-class and lower-class families. The incident, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., was emblematic of a pattern of secrecy within Romney's campaign -- including his refusal to release multiple years of tax returns, details about his offshore investments or the names of his fundraising bundlers.
"Apparently Mitt Romney only shares the details of his economic plan if you donate $50,000 a head to his campaign," Schumer said.
Democrats said cuts to the education and housing departments would restrict access to programs such as Pell grants for college students and federally guaranteed housing loans.
The Romney campaign brushed off the criticism. Former Republican Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri insisted during a conference call with reporters that there "wasn't any change in policy" and that Romney "was just discussing ideas that were coming up on the campaign trail."
But there was no question that the typically cautious candidate had gone well beyond his typical stump speech -- in which he mentions his support for moving programs like Medicaid to the states, where he says they would be more efficient, and his backing of Paul Ryan's budget plan, which aims to rein in the cost of Medicare while cutting taxes. For the most part, Romney has offered just a few examples of cuts he would favor, such as federal subsidies to Amtrak or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which amount to a tiny slice of the budget.
According to NBC, Romney told the fundraiser guests that he would combine many departments in Washington, adding: "Some eliminate, but I'm probably not going to lay out just exactly which ones are going to go. Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later. But I'm not going to actually go through these one by one. What I can tell you is, we've got far too many bureaucrats. I will send a lot of what happens in Washington back to the states."
Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was HUD secretary under President Richard Nixon.
Romney told the Weekly Standard earlier this year that he would "anticipate" that housing vouchers would be turned over to the states were he to win in November. But he also told the reporter he learned a lesson about being too specific from his failed 1994 campaign against Sen. Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts.
"When I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don't care about education," Romney said. "So I think it's important for me to point out that I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies. ... So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I'm not going to give you a list right now."
Romney also unveiled a series of tax proposals at the Florida fundraiser. He said, for example, that for high income earners he would "probably" eliminate the second home mortgage deduction, as well as deductions for state income and property taxes.
"By virtue of doing that, we'll get the same tax revenue, but we'll have lower rates," Romney said, according to NBC.
The tax proposals that Romney advanced in Florida are not necessarily out of step with his party's goals, but few of his colleagues have been as explicit. Congressional Republicans and Democrats have been reluctant to embrace a specific set of changes to the tax code, leaving for another day the unpleasant task of taking on popular deductions.
Still, serious deficit reduction plans -- including Obama's debt commission proposal and a plan by the so-called Gang of Six senators -- suggested trimming the home mortgage deduction for primary residences. Eliminating or trimming the deduction for second homes is considered even lower hanging fruit.
Obama, however, has not endorsed specific tax reform proposals, sticking instead to broad principles.
(Staff writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed this report.)
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