By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 10:09 PM
The fevered dispute over the new federal health-care law has descended on a Florida courthouse, with politicians, scholars and advocacy groups seeking to have a say in a federal lawsuit challenging the statute's constitutionality. Friday was the deadline for proponents and critics to ask the judge presiding over the case to let them submit briefs in the largest of several lawsuits that have been lodged across the country.
In the hours before Friday's court deadline, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive next House speaker, filed motions asking to weigh in on the lawsuit. So did a group of nearly three dozen economics scholars, including three Nobel laureates, organized by a health policy adviser to President Obama's 2008 campaign.
In their legal filing, McConnell and seven other Republican senators renew an argument they made during the congressional debate over the bill. Requiring most Americans to buy health insurance or risk a fine, they contend, goes beyond the power the Constitution gives to Congress under the commerce clause. It amounts to "an impermissible federal police power" of a kind the Constitution gives only to states, they write.
In contrast, the economists coordinated by Harvard health economist David Cutler, the campaign adviser, argue that "reform of the health care system is essential to constraining the growth of health care spending and providing security to all Americans." And, they write, "broadly based health insurance is essential in any reform of the health care system in this country."
The group rejects the idea that requiring insurance is a violation of the commerce clause. Health care, they say, is different from any other facet of the economy.
Taken together, such legal maneuvering reprises the partisan tug of war that played out in Congress before the law was passed - and that Republicans have vowed to revive once they move into the House majority starting in January.
The lawsuit was launched last spring, immediately after the health-care overhaul plan became law, by Florida's Republican attorney general, Bill McCollum, and his counterparts in 19 other states. The Obama administration asked U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson to dismiss the complaint as baseless.
Last month, Vinson decided that two central issues could go to trial. They involve challenges to a part of the law that will require most Americans to carry health insurance starting in 2014 and another part intended to usher in a broad expansion of Medicaid that will allow people to enroll with somewhat higher incomes than most states have permitted in the past. A Michigan judge has dismissed a separate lawsuit challenging the law.
Vinson said he would consider requests one at a time from anyone who wanted to file an amicus - friend-of-the-court - brief buttressing either side of the case. Those were the legal motions due Friday. By the end of the afternoon, the judge had granted 16 of them.
A half-dozen organizations representing the nation's hospitals, for example, are asking to defend the law in court. The hospital groups, which had lobbied Congress for the law, contend in their court filing that the law's effort to expand health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans would benefit hospitals more directly than any other health-care institution. The amount of emergency room and other care for which hospitals are not reimbursed has doubled in a decade - to $36 billion two years ago, their motion notes.
On the other side, the conservative Family Research Council says in its filing that parts of the law "are contrary to family values, family interests and religious liberty." In particular, it criticizes the law's abortion provisions.
The motions also highlight the schism among governors. The Republican governors of Minnesota and Rhode Island argue that the law's expansion of Medicaid "will effectively co-opt control over the state's budgetary processes and legislative agendas." The Democratic governors of Oregon, Iowa and Vermont counter: "[W]ithout a national solution to the health care crisis . . . states would be forced to spend more and more on health care and yet would slide farther and farther away from their obligation to protect the health and well being of their citizens."