Mitt Romney, as 2012 Republican US presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor/AP
By Jackie Kucinich, USA TODAY
Republicans spent the weekend deriding a key part of the Affordable Care Act as a tax, but they were blindsided Monday when a top adviser for Mitt Romney said the presidential candidate disagrees.
The Supreme Court concluded Thursday that the health care law's requirement that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine is constitutional because it is a form of taxation. This provided Republicans with a fresh rallying point against the law and Democrats in the November elections, citing the health care law as a massive tax increase.
But that message was complicated when Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom said on MSNBC the presumptive GOP nominee does not believe the individual mandate - similar to one passed in Massachusetts when Romney was governor - is a tax.
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"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.
Asked by MSNBC's Chuck Todd whether Romney agrees with President Obama "that you should not call the tax penalty a tax, you should call it a penalty or a fee or a fine," Fehrnstrom replied, "That's correct."
Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg tried to turn the conversation back to Obama, saying Romney thinks the mandate "is an unconstitutional penalty."
Veteran Republican strategist Mark McKinnon called the dissonance "message mayhem," noting Romney said in a January 2008 interview that the Massachusetts mandate was, in fact, a tax.
"Romney called the mandate a tax in Massachusetts ... so, I guess he said it was a tax before he said it isn't a tax," he said. "Meanwhile all other Republicans are calling it a tax. Sounds like message mayhem."
Romney has walked a delicate line on the health care law that Democrats and his Republican primary opponents have said was modeled after the Massachusetts law.
Romney has pledged to repeal the health care law on Day One of his administration if he is elected.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, suggested the Romney campaign is trying to stick with the argument that the mandate is unconstitutional.
"They think if you are saying it's a tax that you are suggesting it is constitutional," he said.
Norquist added that he believes the mandate is a tax.
Contributing: Catalina Camia