“I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t always ask for federal money whenever I got the chance,” Romney joked in 2006, after meeting with Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, both Massachusetts Democrats, to seek federal help for a safety review of Boston’s long-troubled $22 billion Big Dig tunnel project.
Romney’s stand on federal assistance is drawing new attention ahead of a Feb. 28 Republican primary in Michigan, where his opposition to a federal bailout of the automobile industry and his criticism of Santorum’s earmarks are a crux of his argument.
The difficulty for Romney now is in explaining his record. He considers appropriate his work asking for federal money, his aides said. But he has a problem with politicians such as Santorum, who actually doled it out.
“Every governor in the country makes requests for funding, but governors do not get to decide how Congress appropriates money,” said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney. She said that Romney supports a permanent ban on earmarks, adding that it is members of Congress, not state executives, who have the power to earmark appropriations.
At a minimum, Romney’s record shows a comfort with pressing for federal money for parochial projects. That could open a new vulnerability for a candidate trying to win over fiscal conservatives, particularly as Romney prepares to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City this weekend.
It also could reinforce a narrative advanced by Romney’s opponents that he has shifted his positions to run for president, this time on the issue of federal earmarking, and could undermine what his campaign has pegged as one of a surging Santorum’s greatest weaknesses: his continued defense of the appropriations practice.
In Romney’s native state of Michigan, where polls show Santorum with a lead ahead of the critical primary, Romney has been stressing how deeply he cares about the American automobile industry, in which his father was once a top executive.
He says his opposition to the bailout of auto companies — outlined in a 2008 New York Times op-ed titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” — was designed to strengthen the industry by forcing it to enter a managed bankruptcy that would replace executives and reduce unsustainable labor costs.
After the bailout, General Motors and Chrysler ultimately did enter such a process. Romney argues that the same outcome would have been possible without federal money, which he says has gone disproportionately to union workers over other employees and bondholders.