WASHINGTON – The fate of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul was cast into deeper jeopardy Tuesday as the Supreme Court’s conservative justices sharply and repeatedly questioned its core requirement that virtually every American carry insurance.
The court will now take up whether any remnant of the historic law can survive if that linchpin fails.
The justices’ questions in Tuesday’s hearing carried serious implications but were sometimes flavored with fanciful suggestions. If the government can force people to buy health insurance, justices wanted to know, can it require people to buy burial insurance? Cellphones? Broccoli?
The law would affect nearly all Americans and extend insurance coverage to 30 million people who now lack it. Republicans are strongly opposed, including the presidential contenders campaigning for the chance to challenge Obama.
The court focused on whether the mandate for Americans to have insurance “is a step beyond what our cases allow,” in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
But Kennedy, who is often the swing vote, also said he recognized the magnitude of the nation’s health-care problems and seemed to suggest they require a comprehensive solution.
He and Chief Justice John Roberts emerged as the apparent pivotal votes in the court’s decision. The ruling is due in June.
Though many of the justices asked tough questions and made strong statements, past cases have shown that those don’t necessarily translate into votes when it comes time for a decision.
Wednesday’s final arguments will focus on whether the rest of the law can remain even if the insurance mandate is struck down and, separately, on the constitutionality of another provision expanding the federal-state Medicaid program.