Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a reporter Wednesday that he opposes a measure being considered by the Senate that would allow employers to decline to provide contraception coverage to women.
"I'm not for the bill," Romney said during an interview with Ohio News Network reporter Jim Heath. "But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I'm not going there."
However, Romney's campaign quickly denied that the governor opposes the so-called Blunt bill, charging that the question Heath asked was confusing.
"Gov. Romney supports the Blunt bill because he believes in a conscience exemption in health care for religious institutions and people of faith," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a prepared statement.
The differing accounts came on the eve of a planned Senate vote on the Blunt amendment, which has prompted contentious debate both on and off Capitol Hill.
The amendment is intended to overturn Obama administration regulations that would require most health insurance plans to provide FDA-approved contraceptives and sterilization services with no additional copayment or deductible.
But critics argue that the amendment is so broadly written — allowing opt-outs for those with "religious or moral objections" — that it would let employers decline to provide virtually any health benefit for virtually any reason.
Heath, reached by phone at Ohio News Network offices in Columbus, said his question to Romney was clearly asked and was specifically about the Blunt amendment.
"I explained the bill as allowing employers to deny female contraception coverage," Heath said, characterizing the governor's statement of opposition as "exactly what he said."
"What I immediately thought, in all honesty," Heath said, "was that he was pivoting toward the middle, toward women voters" who may have been put off by Romney rival Rick Santorum's anti-contraception views.
"I wasn't expecting a definitive answer," Heath said. "But having been covering this campaign for months now, I thought he must be looking at Ohio and beyond, and how Santorum has been raked over the coals on this issue."
"It was a very definitive response, combined with a slap at Santorum," Heath said. "I was surprised he went there."
Here's a transcript of the part of the interview that's in dispute:
HEATH: "He's brought contraception into this campaign. The issue of birth control, contraception, Blunt-Rubio is being debated, I believe, later this week. It deals with banning or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception. Have you taken a position on it? [Santorum] said he was for that, we'll talk about personhood in a second; but he's for that, have you taken a position?"
ROMNEY: "I'm not for the bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I'm not going there."
HEATH: "Surprised that he went there?"
ROMNEY: "You know, I made it very clear when I was being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos in a debate a while ago: Contraception is working just fine, let's just leave it alone."
HEATH: "And the Personhood Amendment could potentially be on the ballot in Ohio this fall. What's your position on this effort, personhood?"
ROMNEY: "Well it's interpreted differently by different states, so I'd have to look at the particular provision. We had a provision in my state that said that life began at conception, that's a provision that I protected. The legislature passed a bill saying that no longer would life be determined to begin at conception, I vetoed that. So we can have a provision that describes life beginning when it in fact begins. At the same time, allowing people to have contraceptives."
Update at 7:45 p.m. ET: The Romney campaign released audio and transcript in which it directly addressed the earlier comments. Romney made the comments on the Howie Carr Show on Wednesday.
Here's the transcript:
CARR: Listen I got to ask you here about there's a — the Washington Post has got a blog out here, saying that Jim Heath, a reporter for a TV station in Ohio just tweeted a remarkable piece of news: Mitt Romney told him he does not support the Blunt amendment which would empower employers and insurers to deny health coverage they find morally objectionable. What happened here, did you –
ROMNEY: I didn't understand his question, of course I support the Blunt amendment. I thought he was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception so I was simply — misunderstood the question and of course I support the Blunt amendment.
CARR: Okay so that should be taken off the table.
CARR: That's running around the world in ten seconds as you know that's how these things go.
ROMNEY: Yeah exactly right. No, I simply misunderstood what he was talking about. 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. Of course Roy Blunt who is my liaison to the Senate is someone I support and of course I support that amendment. I clearly want to have religious exemption from Obamacare.
CARR: And Rubio is one of your potential vice-presidential candidates is also — his name is also attached to the bill and Scott Brown here in Massachusetts is supporting it as well.
ROMNEY: Yeah exactly, I think every Republican is supporting it, and I actually understand that, I may be wrong on this, but my recollection is that Ted Kennedy even wrote a note to the Pope about religious exemptions from matters of this nature for purposes of conscience. So this is something I really think all Americans ought to be able to get around this religious exemption.
CARR: Yeah well you haven't been around here lately but that's been a big controversy here with 'Patches' [Patrick] Kennedy saying that you know — telling Scott Brown, 'well you can't use my father's letter to the Pope 'cause he was just sending a letter to the Pope he didn't really believe anything he said in the letter.' I mean that's what it boiled down to.
ROMNEY: I must admit I hope that when you send a letter to the Pope you believe what you wrote in it.