Based on oral arguments this morning, the latest Supreme Court showdown over Obamacare could lead to another narrow ruling determining the fate of the health-care program. Here are five important takeaways from the hearing in King v. Burwell, a challenge an IRS rule providing financial assistance to millions purchasing health insurance through federal-run exchanges offered in states that did not create their own online marketplaces. (Read our guide for everything you need to know about up to this point.)
1The vote will be close. The four justices from the court's liberal wing appear on board with the Obama administration's argument that all exchanges -- whether state or federal -- can offer subsidies. Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts are still potential swing votes. Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito seem to sympathize with the plaintiffs' argument that the text of the Affordable Care Act only authorizes subsidies in state-run exchanges.
2Kennedy's skepticism could be good for the Obama administration. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a possible swing vote in this case, voiced concern that allowing subsidies only on state exchanges, as the plaintiffs argue the law reads, could raise "serious constitutional problems." Such a requirement could be too coercive, he said, since a state's insurance market would be severely damaged if it didn't set up the exchange and therefore didn't have access to subsidies. That could show that Kennedy is more sympathetic to the federal government’s argument that all exchanges provide subsidies, so there wouldn’t be such a severe penalty to the states that refused to set up their own. On the other hand, Kennedy also expressed concern about giving too much leeway to a federal agency to interpret law if the statute isn't clear enough.
3The Supreme Court could offer a temporary 'fix' if subsidies are struck down. There's been much focus on whether Congress or the Obama administration could step in and blunt the impact of a ruling for the millions of people who'd lose subsidies in federal exchange states. If such a ruling were so disruptive, Scalia said, then Congress would come up with a fix. However, the government's lawyer, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, expressed skepticism that "this Congress" would working something out. Alito suggested that the court -- if it rules against the subsidies -- could delay the decision from taking effect until 2016 to give states and Congress time to react.
4'Standing' likely won't be an issue. There was some question heading into today's argument whether the four plaintiffs had the standing to sue -- that is, could they legitimately claim they would be injured by this law. Without standing, there is no case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned the plaintiffs' attorney on this immediately. However, Verrilli conceded at least one of the plaintiffs probably has standing. And one is enough.
5No one knows what John Roberts is thinking. All eyes were on the chief justice, since he provided the pivotal swing vote three years ago to uphold the law's individual mandate that required Americans to purchase health insurance if they could afford it or didn't already have it . Roberts didn't really say anything Wednesday that would indicate how he's leaning, depriving court watchers of the tea leaves they'd certainly try to read.