Appearing in Washington for the first time since announcing his presidential bid, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said salaries of federal employees should be frozen temporarily until they fall in line with the earning levels of their private sector counterparts.
Speaking at the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute on Wednesday, the Republican said that "we unquestionably know" in many cases that public employees receive higher salaries and better benefits than workers in the private sector and that "is just not fair."
"We can't have the people getting paid by the taxpayers getting a better deal than the taxpayers themselves," said Mr. Pawlenty, adding that public employee pensions should move away from defined benefit plans toward defined contribution plans.
With federal spending and the nation's $14.3 trillion debt dominating the conversation in Washington, Mr. Pawlenty is spending his first week on the campaign trail casting himself as a proven fiscal conservative who'll be honest with voters about the financial problems facing the country.
In recent days, he's called for a phasing out federal ethanol subsidies in Iowa and for gradually raising the eligibility age for Social Security in Florida. On Wednesday, he also called for an end to Wall Street subsidies.
"There can be no more ducking, bobbing and weaving," he said, arguing that aside from defense spending, there can't be anymore "sacred cows" in the budget.
Democrats, though, say Mr. Pawlenty is not the fiscal warrior he makes himself out to be, and that as governor he relied on budget gimmicks and one-time fixes to paper over real fiscal problems — passing the tough decisions onto his successor.
Meanwhile, Beth Moten, political director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said Mr. Pawlenty's push to freeze salaries shows that he "has joined with those who think a race to the bottom is the right direction for America."
"What kind of American president wouldn't want all American workers to receive fair wages and, after a lifetime of service, a retirement plan that lets them live out their later years with independence and security?" she said.
Wednesday's speech came hours after Democrats won a congressional seat in New York in a race that many viewed as a referendum of House Budget Committee Paul Ryan's 2012 spending plan, which over the next decade would shave trillions of dollars off the federal ledger in part by transforming Medicare into a voucherlike system.
Asked about the outcome, Mr. Pawlenty said that special elections are not always a good "barometer of overall sentiment." At the same time, he refused to embrace the Ryan plan, which could become the defining issue of the 2012 campaign. He did offer a vague preview of a plan he plans to roll out in the coming weeks.
"My plan will include a series of options that people can choose from, one of which will be to stay in the current program," he told reporters. "We're going to have some other attractive options that I think are going to make a big difference."
The pushback against public employees mirrors similar calls from lawmakers in Washington and recent fights in Wisconsin, where fiscal battles over the cost of public employees has pushed collective bargaining rights into the national political dialogue.
Mr. Pawlenty officially entered the presidential sweepstakes on Monday. Coupled with the decisions of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to take passes on White House bid, the GOP presidential field is starting to take shape.
The early Beltway consensus is that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has formed an exploratory committee, is the man to beat, but that Mr. Pawlenty and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman have the resumes to give him a run for his money.
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