President Barack Obama walks with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)
(USA TODAY) - White House chief of staff Jack Lew repeatedly said Sunday the penalty for failure to buy health insurance is not a tax, no matter what people are saying about last week's Supreme Court decision.
"This is a penalty," Lew said on CNN's State of the Union, one of three talk show appearances he made today. "It's something that only 1 percent of the people who could afford insurance -- (and) who choose not to get it -- will pay."
In upholding President Obama's health care law last week, a divided Supreme Court said the so-called individual mandate -- the requirement that nearly all Americans buy some kind of insurance, or pay a fine -- is constitutional under Congress' power to levy taxes.
Some Republicans pounced on this reasoning, saying the 2010 health care law is a tax hike as well as bad law.
"The president said it was not a tax, and the Supreme Court -- which has the final say -- said it is tax," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Fox News Sunday.
Other Republicans said the court's 5-4 majority -- led by Chief Justice John Roberts -- essentially rewrote the statute to make it constitutional under the taxing authority.
"If you call it a tax, you can tax anybody to do anything you want from government, apparently," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., appearing on ABC's This Week.
On CNN, Lew said the penalty is designed for people who choose not to buy health insurance, but want to take advantage of the system when they get sick.
Lew also said the justices did not specifically call the penalty a tax, "they said it was using a power under the Constitution that permits it. It was not labeled."
He later added, "everyone who has insurance, everyone who chooses to buy insurance, will not pay it. What they're going to get is security."