The Supreme Court will hear the core of the case against President Barack Obama’s signature health care law today, after appearing Monday to brush aside a technicality that would put off the case until 2015.
With protests and press conferences outside and respectful silence within, the court began the rare three-day argument Monday with anxiety on both sides over the fate of the most far-reaching federal law in decades. In the first 90 minutes of argument, the justices gave few clues as to how they will ultimately rule, but they appeared eager to do so.
Justice Anthony Kennedy — potentially the swing vote in the case — punctured the tension in the room at one point.
“Don’t you want to know the answer?” he asked of how the court would rule on a technical question Monday, to laughs.
“Justice Kennedy, I think we all want to know the answer to a lot of things in this case,” Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. replied.
Today, the court will hear arguments on the central question facing the justices: Can the federal government mandate that individuals buy health insurance coverage?
On Monday, the case attracted a high-profile audience in the packed courtroom, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as well as 10 Members of Congress, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Reps. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), John Larson (D-Conn.), Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands).
Democrats had a largely subdued reaction to the court proceedings, which Blumenthal called a “tone of respectful confidence that the law is on our side.”
Blumenthal said his gut feeling is that the court will uphold the case, but he acknowledged the justices could strike it down. He warned that would be seen as politicizing the court, the way many Democrats view the controversial 2010 campaign finance decision known as Citizens United.
“I think it would be another major step toward undermining the court’s credibility,” he said.
The White House and most Democratic leaders kept their distance from the issue, however.
A Senate Democratic aide acknowledged that Democrats don’t see much benefit in talking about the arcane legal questions surrounding the mandate. “There is no real upside to talking about the law itself if you are not talking about the benefits,” the aide said. The public has moved on, and the law is “not what people want to be talking about,” the aide added.
The aide acknowledged a nervousness among Democrats about the potential for overturning the law — “nobody wants to deal with the consequences” — but felt confident that Democrats would be able to defend their support for the law regardless.
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