WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney got it wrong: It's not 47 percent of the nation that is not paying federal income taxes.
"It's 51 percent!" Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Wednesday.
Hatch, who often talks about the percentage of Americans who don't have to pay Uncle Sam -- aside from payroll taxes -- offered that clarification after he was asked whether he has concerns about fallout from a losing presidential campaign in which Romney's use of the 47 percent figure played a prominent role. Romney argued at a secretly recorded fundraising event that he wasn't concerned about the 47 percent because they wouldn't vote for him.
Hatch argued that Romney's comments "had an effect, but I don't think much of an effect," so he was not worried.
He also clarified what he thinks Romney meant and should have said.
"It was distorted because Romney did not explain it right," Hatch said. "All he had to say was 'Look, when 51 percent of all households -- not just individuals -- don't pay a penny in income taxes, it shows that we've got too many people riding in the wagon.' What he should have said is, 'I want to get them out of the wagon in good jobs where they can also help pull the wagon.'
Hatch, who has tacked to the right since the Tea Party revolution, elaborated on who he thought should be "in the wagon," and how best to talk about it.
"If you're going to explain it, you need to explain that there are many people -- retired, service retired or other who have a right to be there," Hatch said. "The problem with using that kind of percentage is when I've used it, I've gone through a whole litany of explanation to show what I mean. But you can't tell me that the whole 51 percent of all households -- that includes husbands working, wives working, maybe older children working -- are truly poor. We need to help the truly poor.
"That does mean we ought to get these people jobs and have them make a good enough living, whereby they can help pull the wagon," he said.
Asked what he meant by "truly poor," Hatch said people had to decide that for themselves, but he did have some ideas.
"To me, it's people who make less money than they need to really live on, or don't make any money at all or are handicapped or are people with disabilities," he said. "Sometimes it may mean senior citizens who do not have that much Social Security coming.
"There are truly poor people," he added. "But 51 percent of households, which includes husbands, wives, children who work? Come on. It doesn't take any brains to see there's something wrong here, that we don't have more people really helping to pull the wagon. And what's wrong is not the people, it's us for not getting the opportunities, the economic opportunities for them to get out of the wagon and help pull."
Of course, his idea to remedy the situation is not more government involvement -- he was highly critical of an Obama administration attempt to let Hatch's own state, Utah, waive rules in the welfare program in hopes of moving more recipients to work.
"You don't do it with more government, I'll tell you that. It's gotta be done by accentuating the free market system, especially manufacturing," said Hatch, who went on to recall how he was once a union man.
"I learned a trade. I worked 10 years in the building construction trade unions," Hatch said. "Had I stayed with that I would have made a decent living. And I would have helped pull the wagon. And that's what we need to do. We need to make sure that people have the right opportunities, the right type of job training, the right type of economy that will help them."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.