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Romney camp complicates GOP's health care tax message


Updated 12:04 p.m. - The Supreme Court's determination last week that health care reform could be sustained as an extension of the power of Congress to tax has launched a battle of political semantics in Washington over taxes. 

Republicans have latched on to the high court's ruling that the individual mandate -- the requirement that individuals have insurance, or pay a penalty to the IRS -- was essentially a tax. Though the majority decision was authored, ironically, by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, it offered an affirmation of Republicans' long-held contention that President Barack Obama's signature domestic achievement represented a tax hike.

Eric Fehrnstrom, senior advisor to the Romney Campaign, joins The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd to discuss the health care ruling. Fehrnstrom says in Massachusetts Romney called the health care mandate a penalty, not a tax, and explains the difference between the language of the two.

Democrats have preferred, instead, to call it a "penalty" rather than a tax, parrying Republicans' attacks by using language presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has used in defense of his own similar health reform law in Massachusetts.

On Meet the Press, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiĀ  talks about the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

As recently as this Monday morning, the Romney campaign was using the same language.

"It was a penalty, and the governor had all the authority he needed under our state constitution to put in the reforms that he did put in place," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said this morning on MSNBC. "The governor has consistently described the mandate in Massachusetts as a penalty."

Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom

The aftermath of the court's ruling, in short, has resulted in a bizarre situation. Republicans -- including Romney -- attack "ObamaCare" as a tax, even as the party's standard-bearer uses language to defend the Massachusetts law that closely resembles Obama's law. (The Romney campaign is also quick to note that there are other taxes included in the health care law beyond the mandate.)

“The Supreme Court left President Obama with two choices: the federal individual mandate in Obamacare is either a constitutional tax or an unconstitutional penalty. Governor Romney thinks it is an unconstitutional penalty. What is President Obama’s position: is his federal mandate unconstitutional or is it a tax?” asked Amanda Henneberg, a spokeswoman for Romney.

And Democrats are uncomfortably wedded to a Supreme Court decision that handed them their desired outcome, but created for them a new political headache. Mindful that embracing a new tax could be politically treacherous for them in November, the White House and Democrats downballot are scrambling to spin the mandate as anything but a tax, despite the court's ruling and the fact that the "penalty" is paid to the IRS.

Republicans pointed to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's comments toward the decision on "Meet the Press" this Sunday as an acknowledgement of that.

"It's a penalty that comes under the tax code for the 1 percent, perhaps, of the population who decide they're going to be free riders," said the California Democrat, who as House speaker was one of the law's chief proponents.

The GOP is likely to find much more success in using this tactic downballot. They have been hammering away at House and Senate candidates since the decision was first announced.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, for instance, has targeted Democratic candidates in releases and videos throughout the weekend for supporting, they assert, a tax hike.

For its part, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has pushed back by launching automated calls against Republicans that accuse them of wishing to "put insurance companies back in charge of our health care."

But that appears set to be a separate battle from the one between Romney and Obama. Republicans' most visible figure this election year will have trouble explaining to voters how his proposal in Massachusetts is not a tax, but Obama's is. That was a chief conservative criticism of Romney during the primary: that he was the worst possible candidate to challenge Obama on health care, because of the similar law he had passed.