In an interview with Ohio News Network on Wednesday, Mitt Romney said he opposed a controversial amendment that would allow employers to opt out of covering any kind of health benefit for moral reasons. But minutes after his answer was broadcast, the Romney campaign was insisting he actually backed the bill.
The former Massachusetts governor was asked the following question by ONN reporter Jim Heath during a swing through the Buckeye state:
"The issue of birth control, contraception, Blunt-Rubio is being debated, I believe, later this week. It deals with banning or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception. Have you taken a position on it? He (Santorum) said he was for that, we’ll talk about personhood in a second; but he’s for that, have you taken a position?”
Romney responded by declaring, “I’m not for the bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I’m not going there.”
The implication seemed very clear at first. Romney was "not for" the Blunt amendment, which Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) attached to a senate transportation bill and which the majority of Republicans in the senate -- including fellow Bay-Stater Scott Brown, with whom Romney shares staff -- support. But within the hour, the Romney campaign was insisting that the opposite was true.
“Regarding the Blunt bill, the way the question was asked was confusing. Governor Romney supports the Blunt Bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith," said Andrea Saul, a spokesperson for Romney.
The confusion over Romney's position on the matter underscores just how tricky an issue the contraception debates are for the Republican party. While Romney would undoubtedly like to avoid the matter entirely, he must also weigh the benefits and downsides that come with it in the context of a presidential campaign.
During the GOP primary debate held in Arizona just last week, Romney attacked President Barack Obama's contraception policy, which requires most employers to cover contraception with no co-pay for their employees.
I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama. Most recently, of course, requiring the Catholic Church to provide for its employees and its various enterprises health care insurance that would include birth control, sterilization and the morning-after pill. Unbelievable. And he tried to retreat from that but he retreated in a way that was not appropriate, because these insurance companies now have to provide these same things and obviously the Catholic Church will end up paying for them.
Blunt-Rubio would go further than just overriding Obama's contraception rule, allowing any employer to refuse to cover any health care service for religious or moral reasons.
Although he made his opinion about the contraception mandate clear numerous times, Romney had not previously taken a position on the Blunt amendment, which Democrats have criticized for being a dangerous threat to women's ability to pay for birth control.
The Senate is expected to vote on the amendment Thursday.
UPDATE: 6:30 p.m. -- The Obama re-election campaign was quick to pounce on Romney's abrupt reversal, with Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter blasting out the following statement.
In one hour, Mitt Romney showed why women don’t trust him for one minute. It took little more than an hour for him to commit his latest flip-flop. Even worse, he ended up on the wrong side of an issue of critical importance to women.
The Blunt Amendment would allow any employer to deny their female employees coverage because of that employer’s own beliefs. With his support of this amendment, Mitt Romney is taking important health care decisions about contraception, mammograms, and cervical cancer screenings among other issues out of women’s hands and into the hands of their bosses.
UPDATE: 6:45 p.m. -- Appearing on the Howie Carr show after his interview, Romney sought to clean up the confusion around his comment.
"I didn't understand his question," he said. "Of course I support the Blunt amendment. I thought he was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception. I simply misunderstood the question and of course I support the Blunt amendment."
Romney went on to add that he thought Heath was talking about "some Ohio legislation where employers were prevented from providing contraception" repeating once more that he "really misunderstood the question." Audio is below.
The question Heath posed wasn't particularly direct. But while he did bring up the issue of fetal personhood -- a topic being debated in many states -- it was clearly with the intention of discussing the topic later in the interview, "in a second."
UPDATE: 8:45 p.m. -- The Santorum campaign, naturally, isn't buying Romney's explanation, offering a statement on Wednesday evening that accuses the former governor of accidentally revealing the truth about his ideology.
"As governor, Mitt Romney has a clear record of taking away the freedom of religion," said Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley. "We all know Romney's liberal record on this, so when he's asked a question about a bill that would protect our religious freedom -- and Romney's gut reaction is to say he'd oppose it -- we shouldn't be the least bit surprised."
This article previously stated that Romney had expressed his opposition to the Blunt amendment. His spokeswoman later clarified his stance on the matter. The article has been updated accordingly.