WASHINGTON -- Contradicting his own top campaign adviser, Mitt Romney on Wednesday declared that the individual mandate contained in President Barack Obama's health care law is, indeed, a tax and not a penalty against those who refuse to buy coverage
"I said that I agree with the [Supreme Court']s dissent, and the dissent made it very clear that they felt [the individual mandate] was unconstitutional," Romney said in a released clip of a CBS News interview. "But the dissent lost. It's in the minority. And now the Supreme Court has spoken. And while I agree with the dissent, that's taken over by the fact that the majority of the court said it's a tax, and therefore, it is a tax."
Romney continued: "They have spoken. And there's no way around that. You can try and say you wish they decided a different way, but they didn't. They concluded it was a tax. That's what it is."
Romney also sat down with CNN for an interview, during which he repeated the new campaign line. The Supreme Court, he said, ruled that the mandate is a tax, "so it's a tax, of course, if that's what they say it is."
The remarks are a complete 180 from those made by two top advisers to the Romney campaign in recent days. Spokesperson Andrea Saul, two days ago, said that the governor "thinks [the mandate] is an unconstitutional penalty," not a tax. Top aide Eric Ferhnstrom, that same day, emphatically declared that the campaign did not believe the mandate was a tax.
"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 in a Monday interview with MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown."
The comments from Romney, delivered during his July 4 break in New Hampshire, also clearly gave way to the counter-argument that, by his own definition, he raised taxes during his time as Massachusetts governor. The individual mandate, after all, is the concept that Romney helped spearhead as part of the health care overhaul in the Bay State. The penalty that citizens in his home state were subjected to should they opt not to buy insurance is greater than those levied under Obamacare.
The early clip of the CBS interview, however, doesn’t make clear if Romney was asked to address the mandate he signed into law and whether he now could be declared a tax-raiser. A request to the Romney campaign for the full transcript was not immediately returned. It is unclear when the network will air the interview.
The Romney campaign's abrupt reversal comes as conservatives pressured the candidate to use the Supreme Court's ruling -- which held that the mandate was constitutional under Congress' taxing power -- as a cudgel to attack the president. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus went so far as to openly break with the campaign's position, declaring that the individual mandate is a tax.
UPDATE: 3:28 p.m. -- The Romney campaign has released a fuller transcript of the CBS interview, in which the candidate is asked the question: If the mandate is a tax under Obamacare, isn't it also a tax under Masscare?
"Actually the chief justice in his opinion made it very clear that at the state level, states have the power to put in place mandates," Romney replied. "They don’t need to require them to be called taxes in order for them to be constitutional. 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."
The Romney campaign also sent over a portion of Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion in which he notes that because the Constitution "is not the source of" state power, states can act in ways that would be outlawed for the federal government. As Romney argues to CBS, "states can implement penalties and mandates and so forth ... which is what Massachusetts did."
This is a debate over semantics. In the end, the mandate used by Obama was virtually the same as the one used by Romney. Jonathan Gruber, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist who worked on both health care laws, told the Huffington Post as much recently. Although it is justified legally under different definitions, it is the same legislative instrument.
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