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SCOTUS Obamacare decision preserves president's legacy

Supreme Court ruling pushes health care law closer to becoming part of the fabric of US social safety net

WASHINGTON — Six justices on the Supreme Court salvaged President Barack Obama’s legacy Thursday morning, upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act for the second time in three years.  

The  6-3 ruling was hard-won vindication for the Obama administration and Democratic proponents of the health care law, who have spent the five years since it was passed fending off a near-constant stream of political attackslegal challenges and legislative maneuvering by a GOP-led Congress hoping to unravel the law.  

Obama declared that fight over Tuesday, saying from the White House Rose Garden that that the Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as “Obamacare,” was now as much as part of the social safety net as Social Security and Medicare.

“After more than 50 votes in Congress to repeal or weaken this law, after a presidential election based in part on preserving or repealing this law, after multiple challenges to this law before the Supreme Court — the Affordable Care Act is here to stay,” Obama said. “What we’re not going to do is unravel what has now been woven into the fabric of America. And my greatest hope is that rather than keep refighting battles that have been settled again and again and again, I can work with Republicans and Democrats to move forward.”

Obama also noted that his administration had accomplished what other presidents had struggled and failed to achieve for decades. “This generation of Americans chose to finish the job,” he said.

This time, the legal challenge to the president’s signature domestic policy achievement centered around whether the government could provide subsidies to those purchasing insurance coverage through one of the 18 insurance exchanges facilitated by the federal government, when the law technically only sanctioned tax credits in marketplaces “established by the state.”

Chief Justice John Roberts answered the question definitively, writing in the majority opinion, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”  

Republicans, nevertheless, uniformly doubled down on their criticisms of the law and vowed to keep fighting for a repeal. Even as some GOP lawmakers have floated the idea of using a complicated maneuver called reconciliation, which requires both the House and the Senate to agree on a budget resolution, to repeal the law, Republican leaders said a strategy had not been decided upon.

“There’s been no decision on what to use reconciliation for,” Speaker John Boehner told reporters in his weekly briefing. “The problem with Obamacare is fundamentally the same. The law is broken … and we’re going to continue our efforts to put the American people back in charge of their own health care and not the government.”

Genevieve Wood, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that there is still plenty of grass-roots opposition to the health care law and that GOP lawmakers would be wise to listen to their constituents. 

"What the Supreme Court’s decision made clear is that the American public can’t rely on the courts to rid of us Obamacare. That’s got to be done by our lawmakers," she said. "If Republicans want to maintain their majorities in the House and the Senate, they need to keep their campaign promises."  

Supporters of the law, nonetheless, hoped the Supreme Court decision would take the wind out of the sails of Obamacare’s political opponents. The stridency of the majority opinion signaled to some that existential legal threats to the Affordable Care Act at least were over, even as 2016 GOP presidential candidates and lawmakers promised to continue to chip away at key provisions.

“Ahab’s going to keep chasing his white whale,” said Ian Millhiser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “If Republicans in Congress or the White House want to take health care away from millions of Americans, they’re going to need to do it themselves. John Roberts ain’t going to do their dirty work for them.”  

But some speculated that Republicans — unable over the last several months to coalesce around an alternative for ACA subsidies — will be relieved at being spared from having to spend the next several months scrambling for an alternative for the 6 million Americans who would have lost their subsidies had the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the law's challengers. 

“The only people happier than we are, are our Republican colleagues,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters.

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Senate Democrats, said now attention could be focused on fully implementing the law.

“The battle is going to continue, but the war has been won,” Manley said. “I’m sure there’s a whole heck of a lot of Republicans that are secretly quite relieved that the Supreme Court has ruled this way. The Republican Party as a whole can put this issue behind them.”

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