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Ben Carson Attempts to Clarify Muddled Comments on Debt Limit

Ben Carson gave a muddled explanation of his opposition to raising the debt ceiling in an interview on Wednesday, seeming to confuse the government’s borrowing limit with the federal budget.

"Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut," Carson said during a Wednesday radio interview on “Marketplace.”

Hiking the debt ceiling simply raises the amount the U.S. government is authorized to borrow to pay for already-existing financial and legal obligations. If it’s not raised, the government is effectively unable to pay its bills, causing government agencies to prioritize which operations to fund and potentially leading to a government default.

Pressed on whether he’d “let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit,” Carson said that’s not what he was endorsing.

Ben Carson: The Full Meet the Press Interview 9:27

"No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, 'Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we're not raising any spending limits, period,’” he said.

Conservatives in Congress have repeatedly forced showdowns over the debt limit in the past and have framed the tactic as an effort to get the government’s financial house in order. Congress could be headed for yet another showdown next month, as the Treasury said last week the government will hit its debt limit in early November.

Carson speaks often on the stump about the debt limit, telling supporters to “throw [lawmakers] out of office” if they vote to increase it because “it is undermining our financial foundations.”

During the Wednesday interview, asked a third time whether he would “not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred” by the government, Carson seemed to pivot back to spending.

“What I'm saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt,” he said. “I mean, if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You're always gonna ask the same question every year. And we're just gonna keep going down that pathway. That's one of the things I think that the people are tired of.”

In a statement on Thursday, Carson told NBC News, “Critics have blown this way out of proportion, or more correctly, don’t appreciate my resolve to get our fiscal house in order.”

Carson did assert that he understands the concept of the debt limit, but again repeated his argument that government spending is the real issue.

“While raising the debt ceiling is about paying for obligations the federal government has incurred, I made clear in my interview that unless we get our debt under control, we will be back having the same argument about the debt ceiling on a regular basis,” he said.

But Carson offers no stance on raising the upcoming debt limit, and a spokesman did not respond to a request for clarification on whether Carson opposes a hike in November.

And during the Wednesday interview he offered few specifics on what government spending or programs he’d cut to eliminate the national debt and avoid the whole conversation over the debt limit in the future. Carson told Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal that he would “simply refuse to extend the budget by one penny for three to four years,” which Carson said would produce a balanced budget.

In addition, he’d “allow the government to shrink by attrition,” by not replacing government workers who retire, and he’d require that every departmental and sub-departmental head in the government reduce their spending by 3 to 4 percent.

Carson later said that “all the spending that we're doing, in my opinion, is not legitimate spending,” and resists being asked to identify exactly what he’d cut, again saying it needs to be across-the-board cuts throughout government.