By KASIE HUNT, Associated Press
WOLFEBORO, N.H. (AP) — Mitt Romney on Wednesday said requiring all Americans to buy health insurance amounts to a tax, contradicting a senior campaign adviser who days ago said the Republican presidential candidate viewed President Barack Obama's mandate as anything but a tax.
"The majority of the court said it's a tax and therefore it is a tax. They have spoken. There's no way around that," Romney told CBS News. "You can try and say you wish they had decided a different way but they didn't. They concluded it was a tax."
Romney's comments amounted to a shift in position. Earlier in the week, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney viewed the mandate as a penalty, a fee or a fine - not a tax.
The Supreme Court last week ruled that the federal requirement to buy health insurance or pay a penalty is constitutional because it can be considered a tax. The requirement is part of the broad health care overhaul that Obama signed into law in March 2010.
An identical requirement was part of the state health care law that Romney enacted when he was governor of Massachusetts.
"The governor believes that what we put in place in Massachusetts was a penalty and he disagrees with the court's ruling that the mandate was a tax," Fehrnstrom said Monday on MSNBC.
Romney told CBS on Wednesday that the court opinion makes clear the state's mandate is not a tax, but a penalty.
Romney's campaign insisted it was not a change because the Republican said he agreed with the justices who dissented and would have ruled the mandate unconstitutional. The campaign said Romney agreed it is a tax simply because the court determines the "law of the land."
The back-and-forth within the GOP over what to call the mandate illustrates how difficult the health care issue is for Romney. The law he signed as governor in 2006 moved Massachusetts toward universal coverage and became a blueprint for Obama's overhaul. But Romney has spent much of the presidential campaign shying away from talking about it, preferring instead to keep voters focused on the slow economic recovery under Obama.
Both measures require individuals to have health insurance, require that businesses offer health care to their employees and provide subsidies or exemptions for people who can't afford it. Both also impose penalties on people who can afford health insurance but don't pay for it.
Despite calling Obama's mandate a tax, Romney insisted that the court ruling did not mean that he raised taxes as governor of Massachusetts. He said Chief Justice John Roberts was clear in the court's 5-4 ruling that states have the power to mandate purchases using mechanisms other than taxes.
"At the state level, states have the power to put in place mandates. They don't need to require them to be called taxes in order for them to be constitutional," Romney said in the interview. "And as a result, Massachusetts' mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the Legislature and by me, and so it stays as it was."
Romney also said Obama broke his promise not to raise taxes on middle-class families by putting the mandate in place.
In the week since the Supreme Court ruling, Republicans have criticized Obama by pointing to the tax and accusing him of raising taxes. Democrats, meanwhile, have been eager to accuse Romney of also raising taxes in Massachusetts. They cite a 2009 opinion piece in which Romney wrote that Massachusetts "established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance." In the piece, he acknowledged that the requirement amounted to a tax: "Using tax penalties, as we did ... encourages 'free riders' to take responsibility for themselves."
Romney's comments to CBS came in an interview conducted in Wolfeboro before he marched in the town's Fourth of July parade, holding hands with his wife, Ann. He also was joined by New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a possible candidate for a running mate.