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Romney now says health care fee is a tax

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney walks in the Fourth of July Parade in Wolfeboro, N.H., Wednesday, July 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

AP

Mitt Romney walked in the Wolfeboro, N.H., parade.

WOLFEBORO, N.H. — Mitt Romney on Wednesday said President Obama’s individual mandate in his signature health care law is “a tax,” reversing a position staked by his campaign two days earlier.

The “majority of the court said it’s a tax, and therefore it is a tax,” he said in the interview with CBS News. “They have spoken. There’s no way around that. You can try and say you wished they had decided a different way, but they didn’t. They concluded it was a tax. That’s what it is.”

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On Monday, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney did not agree with the court’s majority’s “tax” label and instead considered it a penalty. That view was seen as making it easier for Romney to avoid having the same risky “tax” label applied to a similar measure in the Massachusetts health plan he enacted as governor.

“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,” said Fehrnstrom, who made his comments in an MSNBC interview.

On Wednesday, Romney said that while he agreed with the court’s minority view that the punishment was not a tax, he accepts the majority decision. With that declaration, Romney quickly pivoted into an attack on Obama.

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“[T]he American people know that President Obama has broken the pledge he made. He said he wouldn’t raise taxes on middle-income Americans,” Romney said.

The change puts Romney in step with Republicans who have been hammering Obama over the Supreme Court’s tax determination, which held that the enforcement mechanism for the individual mandate in the 2010 health care expansion — a penalty payment made to the Internal Revenue Service — qualifies as a tax.

In the CBS interview, Romney insisted the Massachusetts health plan’s punishment on people who fail to get mandated health coverage does not meet the court’s definition of a tax.

“The chief justice said that states have what’s known as police power, and states can implement penalties and mandates and so forth under their constitutions, which is what Massachusetts did. But the federal government does not have those powers.”

Romney continued, “Therefore Obamacare’s a tax. Like it or not, it’s a tax.”

Obama’s campaign issued a statement Wednesday saying Romney “contradicted his own campaign, and himself.”

“First, he threw his top aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, under the bus by changing his campaign’s position and calling the ‘free rider’ penalty in the president’s health care law — which requires those who can afford it to buy insurance — a tax,” Danny Kanner, an Obama campaign spokesman, said in a statement.

“Second, he contradicted himself by saying his own Massachusetts mandate wasn’t a tax — but Romney has called the individual mandate he implemented in Massachusetts a tax many times before. Glad we cleared all that up.”

The campaign was referring to the several times — including a 2008 Republican debate and a 2009 opinion piece he wrote for USA Today — when Romney has referred to the state’s mandate payment as a tax.

“Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages ‘free riders’ to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others,” Romney wrote in USA Today.

Romney’s campaign declined to state whether Romney’s acceptance of the tax label on the national law contradicted Fehrnstrom’s account.

Since the Supreme Court upheld the health care law in a 5-4 decision, the Obama administration, too, has struggled to reconcile the majority view with Obama’s repeated insistence before the ruling that the mandate was not a tax.

The CBS interview was conducted shortly before Romney marched in the Fourth of July parade in Wolfeboro, where he is vacationing at his lakeside compound with his family.

In  comments after the parade, Romney sought to stay away from political topics, saying the day was one for unity.

“We have differing views on political issues,” he said, against a stunning backdrop of Lake Winnipesaukee. “But with regard to our conviction that this nation is unique and exceptional, we must come together and show respect for what it is that makes us such a great nation.”

There was little avoiding issues, though. Shaking hands along the parade route, someone in the crowd told Romney that the health care penalty was a tax.

“It is. I agree,” Romney replied.

Marching in the parade with Romney was Kelly Ayotte, a senator from New Hampshire who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential choice. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, another mentioned candidate, was not with Romney. He will be in New Hampshire on Saturday to attend a fund-raiser, said Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the coordinated Romney-Republican National Committee New Hampshire campaign.

Democrats also turned out for the event, including Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman John Walsh and state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez. The Democrats received a warm though far less enthusiastic response from the crowd. The town has voted for Republicans in the last three presidential elections.

Some Republicans could be heard grumbling, “Go away,” as the Obama supporters marched by, and Romney avoided a Democratic crowd on the route with Obama signs and one reading “We are the 99%.”

For some, Romney’s presence in the parade — for the first time as a presumptive presidential nominee — made for an overly political event.

“It’s nice to have more of a mix,” said Melissa Hanson, a Romney supporter.

Her friend, Mitch Ganem, a Democrat, said, “It was gross. It was a Romney parade.”

Romney himself reveled in the parade crowd’s welcome.

“I realize that a number of people were thinking of voting for someone else besides me. I know there were a few of them in that crowd,” he said. “But you know, they were courteous and respectful and said, ‘Good luck to ya,’ and said, ‘Happy Fourth of July.’”

Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@globe.com. Chris Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.
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