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Health care law court-case winner could be political loser

WASHINGTON – The party that wins the impending Supreme Court decision on President Barack Obama’s health care law could be the political loser.

Demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court on March 4 in Washington as the court was hearing arguments about the Affordable Care Act. (The Associated Press)

Demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court on March 4 in Washington as the court was hearing arguments about the Affordable Care Act. (The Associated Press)

If the Republican-backed challenge to the law’s subsidies for lower-earning Americans prevails, the GOP would have achieved a paramount goal of severely damaging Obamacare. But Republican lawmakers would be pressured to help the millions of Americans who could suddenly find government-mandated medical coverage unaffordable – and they’d face blame from many voters if they failed to provide assistance.

“If you win the case, you actually have people who lost their insurance. You now share the responsibility for fixing it,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who once led the House GOP campaign committee. “That hurts you.”

Should the Obama administration win, relieved Democrats would crow that Obama’s foremost domestic achievement had stood unscathed. But some say they’d have lost a potentially powerful cudgel for the 2016 campaigns: Being able to accuse Republicans of ending the assistance and disrupting health coverage for many.

If Democrats lose in court, “It completely reverses the issue and puts us back on offense on health care,” said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., one of his party’s chief message crafters.

Democrats have frequently been forced to defend the 2010 law, including over Obama’s promise that people could keep policies they liked and the trouble-plagued startup of the federal HealthCare.gov website.

Not everyone thinks his party will lose politically should it win in court. Many Republicans say that if the Supreme Court rules that subsidies were provided illegally, it would be the Democratic administration’s fault for doing so, not the GOP’s.

“That’s a win for us,” said conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

One staunch defender of the law, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said a plaintiffs’ victory would hurt both parties “because people across the country don’t always distinguish between the two sides.”

The Supreme Court decision is expected by late June or early July.

Conservatives and Republicans say the law’s wording limits subsidies to people buying coverage in states running their own insurance marketplaces. Thirty-seven states rely on HealthCare.gov, including 34 that would be most directly affected if the court overturned the subsidies.

New Mexico, which runs its own insurance marketplace, BeWellNM.com, would not be affected by the court’s ruling.

Democrats say the Affordable Care Act was always intended to offer subsidies for all Americans who qualify.

According to government figures, about 8.8 million people have selected coverage from HealthCare.gov for this year. That includes 7.7 million who have qualified for subsidies, paid as tax credits, averaging $263 monthly.

The private Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute have estimated that a plaintiffs’ victory would increase the number of uninsured people in 2016 by 8.2million.

The most heavily affected states are overwhelmingly run by GOP governors and are home to 22 of the 24 Republican senators facing re-election next year.

“If we’re not prepared with a transition plan, it could be difficult to sustain the pressure that would come to cover people who all of a sudden lost their subsidy,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

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