White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew made it clear on Sunday that the White House doesn't yet have an argument to counter the main Republican attack on President Obama's health care law.
Though the law was upheld by the Supreme Court on Thursday in an affirmation of the president's centerpiece legislation, the Court did so under Congress' power to tax, indicating the penalty imposed upon those who don't buy health care can be considered a tax. That's offered Republicans an opening on an issue that Democrats wish would have ended with the SCOTUS decision last week.
But Lew offered little defense of that aspect of the law, asserting only that, in name, it's not a tax, it's a "penalty."
"The law is clear. It's called a penalty. Second of all, what the Supreme Court ruled is that this law is constitutional," he said on CNN's State of the Union.
Lew went so far as to say that the Supreme Court justices didn't call the penalty a tax, but that they did say Congress "was using a power under the Constitution that permits it" -- the aforementioned congressional power to tax.
"It was not labeled," he said.
He did, however, defend what he called a "penalty" as likely to affect only roughly 1 percent of Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And though Democratic attempts to tie Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to the Massachusetts health care plan he instituted during his time as governor that is near-identical to Obama's healthcare reform have fallen to the wayside, Lew indicated that argument may see a renaissance following the Supreme Court's decision.
"This was a plan that Governor Romney supported. It's something that I would think he would have been proud of," he said.
The Republican National Committee pounced on Lew's assertions. RNC spokesman Joe Pounder said in an e-mail to reporters that it was "painful" to watch Lew "struggle to explain" how the mandate didn't constitute a tax. The Democratic National Committee countered by arguing that in 2009, Romney wrote in a USA Today op-ed that he used “tax penalties” to achieve the objective of broadening coverage.