Just when the president and his allies on Capitol Hill were starting to feel like the Obamacare troubles were mostly behind them, an appeals court decision brought another political and legal headache and new uncertainty about the law's future Tuesday.
While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest expressed confidence that the 2-1 D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Halbig v. Burwell voiding tax subsidies for people in states using Healthcare.gov would be reversed, the outcome of the case at least has the potential to gut subsidies at the core of the law for millions.
The ruling came gift-wrapped for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who plans a parallel lawsuit by the House seeking to undo Obama's delays of the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate — even though the House has voted to delay that mandate.
“For the second time in a month, the courts have ruled against the president’s unilateral actions regarding ObamaCare," Boehner said in a statement. "The president has demonstrated he believes he has the power to make his own laws. That’s not the way our system of government was designed to work."
It had Democrats on Capitol Hill fuming, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., calling it "absurd" and a case of "activist Republican judges."
And Democrats and Republicans alike pointed to Reid's decision last year to employ the "nuclear option" to end a GOP blockade of Obama nominees for the D.C. Circuit — as well as other posts — as potentially key to overturning the ruling.
Reid said "simple math" vindicated using the nuclear option.
“There was a strong conservative Republican majority on the D.C. Circuit until we filled the vacancies,” noted Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.
Republicans appealed to the Supreme Court to weigh in — and that's ultimately where the dispute could end up. It would be yet another high-stakes round in the high court for the administration's legal team, which survived a near-death experience for the law's individual mandate and then lost in the court over the contraception mandate for closely held corporations.
Democrats and the White House also jumped on a 3-0 Obamacare ruling in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the administration's favor.
“Another partisan attempt to harm the Affordable Care Act failed today,” Earnest said in a statement. “This latest attempt was undermined by a unanimous judicial panel in the 4th Circuit. The law was designed to make health care affordable through tax credits — and it is working.”
Part of the government’s own defense is that abiding by the D.C. Circuit panel's interpretation of the law would render several other provisions of the health care law “absurd.”
The government said the literal meaning of the statute would make the law “nonsensical” and would create an outcome “so contrary to the perceived social values Congress could not have intended it.”
In the meantime, don't expect Congress to act on a legislative fix ensuring all Americans access to the subsidies anytime soon.
“It cannot be fixed,” Boehner said in a statement.
Matt Fuller, Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.