Opponents: Congress went too far in Obama healthcare law

WASHINGTON Mon Feb 6, 2012 6:51pm EST

U.S. President Barack Obama talks at the 60th annual National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton hotel in Washington February 2, 2012.   REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama talks at the 60th annual National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton hotel in Washington February 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress went beyond its powers by requiring Americans to buy insurance under President Barack Obama's sweeping healthcare overhaul, opponents told the Supreme Court on Monday in arguing the law's centerpiece provision should be struck down.

In separate written briefs, 26 states and an independent business group argued Congress overstepped its authority under the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce by mandating that individuals buy health insurance or pay a penalty by 2014.

They were responding to Obama administration arguments, filed with the high court last month, that defended the provision, known as the individual mandate, as a constitutional attempt to address a crisis in the national health care market.

The court has scheduled three days of oral arguments on the healthcare battle for March 26-28, with an election-year ruling likely by late June on the law that aims to provide more than 30 million uninsured Americans with coverage.

The 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business called it an unprecedented move by Congress to force individuals to buy insurance. The states say the entire law would be invalid if the Supreme Court strikes down the mandate.

A ruling striking down the law would be a huge political and legal defeat for Democrat Obama ahead of the November 6 election, when he seeks another four-year term. A ruling upholding his signature domestic achievement would be a major vindication.

Paul Clement, a former solicitor general under the Bush administration who is arguing for the states, said Congress may not circumvent constitutional limits by enacting a comprehensive regulatory scheme.

"The individual mandate is an unprecedented law that rests on an extraordinary and unbounded assertion of federal power," he wrote in the brief, arguing that the mandate "was not a valid exercise of Congress' Commerce power."

Attorneys for the independent business group said the predominant purpose of the mandate was to force the uninsured to get coverage and to provide an annual subsidy of $28 to $39 billion to insurers and their customers.

They said Congress can regulate interstate commerce by setting rules that govern commercial activity between the states, but the powers were limited and Congress cannot force individuals to buy a product like health insurance.

"Forcing people into commerce does not regulate commerce. Otherwise, Congress could compel the purchase of any product," they said in the written brief.

One of the attorneys, Gregory Katsas, told reporters Congress had never before in U.S. histroy made such a requirement. If the Supreme Court upholds the mandate, Congress next could force people to buy a specific car model, he said.

The legal arguments by the states and the business group were substantially the same to those they previously have made in the legal battle over the healthcare law.

The Supreme Court cases are National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, No. 11-393; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, No. 11-398; and Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services, No. 11-400.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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