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.
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.
"I see you waterskiing!" one parade-watcher told Romney as he crossed from one side of Main Street to the other, shaking hands with well-wishers. "Oh, I do it from time to time," Romney replied, smiling. At the end of the parade, he spoke to a crowd waiting at Brewster Academy.
Romney is spending this week on vacation at his lakeside estate. His participation in the parade through the center of town was his only official public appearance during a weeklong family break from campaigning.
Yet, it was not the first time that Romney has been seen around Wolfeboro since he arrived last weekend. His entire family — now numbering 30 in all — has gathered at Romney's home on Lake Winnipesaukee for the annual family vacation. And even though the family patriarch is now the presumed Republican candidate for president, many of their normal routines haven't changed. They've attended church, bought ice cream in town and taken the boat out on the lake.
Still, the vacation hasn't been all fun and games for the likely Republican presidential nominee. Romney huddled Tuesday with top advisers, including his campaign manager and the aide overseeing his vice presidential search. His top strategist was in town shooting video for new TV ads.
Officially, the week by the lake gives Romney some time to focus on his family and relax before the campaign push to the GOP convention in August. But unofficially, the down time also is a chance for the contemplative Romney to consider how the campaign is going and to adjust strategy as necessary in a contest that polls show is close.
Underscoring the stakes, Obama canceled his annual summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. He spent a long holiday weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat and returned to Washington on Wednesday for the Fourth of July.
Behind the scenes in Wolfeboro, Romney is all but certain to be at work just as much as he is at play — and probably focused on the biggest decision he will make between now and when he accepts the GOP's presidential nomination at the convention. His self-imposed deadline for picking a running mate "before the convention" is looming large and the search for a No. 2 is well under way.
His campaign has stayed mum on whether that was a topic of conversation Tuesday when he and his wife spent at least 45 minutes talking with campaign manager Matt Rhoades, senior adviser Beth Myers and top strategist Stuart Stevens on the deck that overlooks the lawn behind his home. Romney's five sons — particularly his eldest son, Tagg — also serve as informal political advisers, and all have been on hand this week, virtually ensuring that the campaign and the running mate search were discussed.
Romney's vacation ends Sunday when he's scheduled to head to New York for fundraising events — and to resume his campaign schedule fulltime.
Associated Press photographer Charles Dharapak contributed to this report.
Follow Kasie Hunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/kasie