House Democrats used their new majority on Thursday to squeeze Republicans on health care, taking the first step to intervene in a court case in which a Texas judge has ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional.
That move will be followed by a vote next week designed to force GOP lawmakers into a political corner: agree to defend a law many members have spent years reviling or appear to oppose popular ACA protections for millions of Americans with preexisting medical conditions that many have pledged to uphold.
“Republicans should end their assault on health care and join us to do the right thing for the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in announcing the Jan. 9 vote.
Thursday’s authorization was part of a collection of rules the House adopted to guide its operation in the new Congress. It gives Pelosi permission to intervene in the Texas court case and allows the chamber’s counsel to work on the litigation.
“Now we have the ability of our Speaker to stand up for the American people and fight for the health care they so desire,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who called her state the “poster child for uninsured Americans” before the ACA.
The House maneuver came hours after a coalition of Democratic attorneys general appealed the ruling by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor that the ACA is invalid — launching a process Thursday that could bring the law before the Supreme Court for a third time.
The appeal, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, begins the case’s path through the judiciary after O’Connor agreed last weekend that the law would remain in effect in the meantime.
The appeal by 16 states and the District of Columbia consists of a single paragraph that lays out the legal steps to this stage. But California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, leading the opponents of the decision, and other coalition members heaped barbed words on the ruling, contending it is “reckless,” “ludicrous” and based on a “flimsy” legal theory, as various attorneys general put it.
Becerra, a former House member who voted for the ACA in 2010, said the ruling “threatens the entire health-care system.”
At a White House Cabinet meeting Thursday, President Trump declared, “That case from Texas should win in the Supreme Court.”
The appeal comes nearly three weeks after O’Connor issued a Friday-night decision concluding that all of the ACA is invalid because of a recent change in tax law. His reasoning hinges on the fact that a massive tax bill, passed by Congress at the end of 2017, included a provision that eliminates an ACA penalty imposed on Americans who did not comply with the law’s requirement that they have health insurance.
The case involves a lawsuit filed a year ago by a score of Republican attorneys general, who argued that without the penalty the ACA’s insurance mandate was no longer constitutional, because it no longer grew out of Congress’s taxing authority. The suit then argued that the insurance requirement could not be legally separated from the rest of the sprawling statute, and thus all of it was invalid.
O’Connor agreed, writing in his opinion that the coverage mandate “is essential to and inseverable from the remainder of the ACA.”
In their conference call Thursday, the Democratic attorneys general disputed that. “It is simply verging on ludicrous to suggest that the issue of taxability cannot be severed from the rest of the ACA,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
The group of Democratic attorneys general emerged last year as the main defenders of the law when the Trump administration, in an unusual move, announced that it would not defend the ACA against the lawsuit.