* Health partisans on both sides see reason for optimism
* Law's opponents say mandate clearly in trouble
* Advocates see solid support among liberal justices
* Tough questions may suggest 'non-ideological' ruling
By David Morgan and Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON, March 27 The Supreme Court is not
expected to rule on the U.S. healthcare law's contentious
individual mandate for another three months.
But that did not stop partisans on both sides of the
political battle from claiming - or at least trying to salvage -
an early victory in the court of public opinion on Tuesday.
The shouting match began well before the high court started
hearing oral arguments on the case this week.
It escalated measurably after the justices wrapped up their
rapid-fire q uestions on Tuesday on the constitutionality of the
provision that requires most Americans to have health insurance
While no one would predict a final ruling, some Republicans
appeared jubilant over signs of an ideological split that could
position the court's 5-4 conservative majority in opposition to
"Based on my reading of the ... hearings today, it is
doubtful that the individual mandate will survive," Senator Mike
Lee of Utah said in one of several Twitter messages Senate
Republicans issued after Tuesday's hearing concluded.
But advocates of the healthcare overhaul saw a silver
lining, saying the tone of the justices' discourse appeared to
favor the law.
"There was a majority of the court in favor of upholding ...
the individual mandate," said Doug Kendall of the liberal
Constitutional Accountability Center.
The mandate is the linchpin of President Barack Obama's
signature policy to provide healthcare coverage to more than 30
million uninsured Americans under the 2010 Patient Protection
and Affordable Care Act, or ACA.
It is being challenged by 26 states and an independent
business group that want the provision overturned on the grounds
that it exceeds the federal government's constitutional
Outside the court's Greco-Roman colonnade, the law and its
main provision are at the center of a vitriolic political debate
between presidential candidates, lawmakers and allied groups
that could help determine who controls the White House and
Congress after the Nov. 6 election.
SOURCES OF SUPPORT
But not everyone who opposes the law saw Tuesday's
proceedings as a victory.
"It didn't look to me as if it was a slam dunk from any
perspective," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the
conservative American Action Forum, who attended the hearing.
Advocates of the law said the hearing demonstrated solid
support for the mandate from the court's four liberal justices -
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen
That means the measure could be upheld if one conservative
justice joins them and some saw evidence that Justice Anthony
Kennedy could do so.
"Justice Kennedy asked very tough questions. And yet he
described the unique dynamics of the healthcare market himself,
more so than anyone else," said Ethan Rome, executive director
of Health Care for America Now, a coalition of union and liberal
groups that has been lobbying for reform since 2008.
"Not all healthcare advocates saw today as a good day. But
that's the wrong way to read it," he said. "Kennedy needs to ask
the toughest questions to assure conservatives that any
non-ideological judgment will be based on the merits."
Ron Pollack, executive director of the healthcare consumer
advocacy group Families USA, said the court's final ruling will
depend on how many justices view the mandate as an instrument
for regulating healthcare rather than spurring insurance sales.
"If it's healthcare, they'll come out in a way that
understands healthcare consumes one out of every six dollars in
the economy and that it's rational for Congress to regulate it,"
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the legal
issues, healthcare reform's ultimate fate could lie in the
political realm, depending on the outcome of November elections.
"If Senate Republicans become the majority next year, the
first item on the agenda of the new Senate Republican majority
would be the repeal of Obamacare (ACA) and the replacement of it
with something that makes more sense and is targeted at the
problems that we actually have in American healthcare," said
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.