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What's my line?

Politics | On the eve of a crucial Senate vote on conscience protections, Mitt Romney sends mixed signals

WASHINGTON-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waffled Thursday on an issue that has become central for Republicans in recent weeks, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, known in the Senate as the Blunt-Rubio amendment. The act addresses President Obama's contraceptive mandate, preserving employers' conscience protections so they don't have to pay for contraceptives or abortifacients.

In an interview with reporter Jim Heath of the Ohio News Network (ONN-TV), which aired Wednesday evening, Romney indicated he was against the Blunt-Rubio amendment.

"Blunt-Rubio is being debated, I believe later this week, that deals with banning, or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception," Heath said to Romney. "Have you taken a position on that?"

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"I'm not for the bill," Romney replied. "But look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception between a man and a woman, between a husband and wife, I'm not going there."

After clips of the interview began circulating, the Romney campaign quickly issued a statement saying the candidate did in fact support the Blunt-Rubio amendment.

"Regarding the Blunt bill, the way the question was asked was confusing," stated spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "Gov. Romney supports the Blunt bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in healthcare for religious institutions and people of faith."

The interview and follow-up left some proponents of the legislation confused.

"It's perplexing. … It's not helpful," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the Susan B. Anthony List, which has been pushing for the conscience bill. "It's possible he got confused."

Dannenfelser said the most confusing part of Romney's remarks was when he said a president shouldn't get into questions about contraception. "I just don't know," she said. "It makes you think he knows more," implying that he wasn't just confused about the question.

Dannenfelser said Romney needs to clarify his position himself, not through a representative from his campaign. "Tonight's the night because we're at a peak moment in this battle on [Capitol] Hill. …The most important thing is that it not in any way hinder the resolution on the Hill to get this passed."

Romney later Wednesday evening did address the misstep in a radio interview. "I simply misunderstood what [Heath] was talking about," he told the Howie Carr Show. "I thought it was some Ohio legislation that-where employers were prevented from providing contraceptives, and so I talked about contraceptives and so forth. So I really misunderstood the question." Romney added that he supports the Blunt amendment. "I clearly want to have religious exemption from Obamacare."

The Senate is expected to vote on the Blunt-Rubio amendment Thursday, and there's a chance it could pass. The amendment has gained the support of at least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Senate Democrats have characterized the conscience legislation as a "ban" on contraceptives, but the bill would simply allow employers with religious or moral convictions against the federal mandates, including contraceptives, to refuse to pay for them. Blunt has said the amendment reinforces federal conscience protections that were in place before the new healthcare law took effect.

Romney's perceived misstep on this legislation could affect people important to his campaign, including the chief sponsors of the bill. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., endorsed Romney early on and became one of his chief congressional liaisons. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a much sought-after vice presidential candidate. Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have given the legislation their full backing and have held press conference after press conference on the matter.

Listen to a report on Romney's slip of the tongue on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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