WASHINGTON — It looks like a tax, smells like a tax, and the Supreme Court says it must be a tax. But politicians in both parties are squirming over how to define the thing in President Barack Obama's health care law that requires people to pay up if they don't get health insurance.
The problem for Obama is that, if the thing is indeed a tax, he is by definition a raiser of taxes on the middle class, which he promised not to be.
If that sounds like an opportunity for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, well, it's not that simple.
Obama's health care law is closely modeled on the universal-coverage plan Romney achieved as Massachusetts governor, and that plan contains a penalty for noncompliance similar to the one in the federal law upheld by the court last week.
So if Obama is a raiser of taxes, so is Romney.
Contortions have ensued over what to call this health care thing.
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom strayed from Republican talking points when he told MSNBC that Romney agrees with Justice Antonin Scalia's minority opinion that “very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax.”
That position is at odds with congressional Republicans who are determined to portray the thing as an Obama tax pure and simple.
“The American people do not want to go down this path,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “They do not want the government telling them what kind of insurance policy they have to buy, and how much they have to pay for it, and if you don't like it we're going to tax you.”
‘Penalty on free riders'
As for the other side, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, and some others have taken to calling it a “penalty for free riders.”