While several hundred tea party activists were gathered on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon to push for deep cuts to federal spending, one potential presidential contender was inside the Capitol laying out his vision of how best to take on the national health care overhaul and reform the country’s entitlement programs.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was the guest of the Congressional Health Care Caucus, a group that holds events and briefings for House Republican members and staffers on health-care policy issues.

He reiterated a point he made in a Washington Post op-ed last month in favor of making budget cuts that are “smart rather than cheap.”

One example of that kind of decision-making, Gingrich said, was a bipartisan move made while he was speaker to double the National Institutes of Health budget.

“In retrospect, we should have tripled it,” Gingrich said, making his case to House Republicans not to include a proposed $1.6 billion cut to the NIH in their resolution on funding the government for the remainder of the fiscal year.

House Republicans’ proposed cuts would amount to about five percent of the NIH’s $31 billion budget for the current fiscal year.

Gingrich said he was “deeply opposed” to House Republicans’ proposed NIH cuts. “I would plead with the Republicans in the House to not cut NIH but also to start hearings on fundamentally how to reformulate it,” he said.

At Thursday’s event, hosted by Congressional Health Care Caucus Chairman Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas), Gingrich also said that the national health care law “may not get repealed if Obama gets reelected; it may just survive by sheer inertia.”

He argued in favor of two ideas he has previously introduced on reforming entitlement programs. One is a plan to convert Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, from an entitlement program into a block grant, a move favored by some Republican governors.

“We’ll never figure out a national solution” to Medicaid, Gingrich said, advocating for reform that gives states’ greater flexibility.

Gingrich also advocated for reforming Medicare so that “those who are well-off ... should be allowed to apply for a personal choice.”

“The current Medicare system is more national-dominated than the British national health service,” Gingrich said, adding that wealthy individuals such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett shouldn’t be “trapped” in a government-run system.

Before addressing the health care gathering, Gingrich spoke to House Republican freshmen about the ongoing congressional budget battle.