America’s historic health-care overhaul, derided by Republicans as intrusive, costly “Obamacare,” narrowly survived an election-year battle at the Supreme Court Thursday with the improbable help of conservative Chief Justice John Roberts.
The 5-4 ruling makes it certain that major health-care changes will move ahead, touching virtually every American. And Democrats, who have learned to accept the GOP label for the law, praised the ruling.
But the decision also gave Republicans ammunition for the fall campaign against President Barack Obama, the bill’s champion – and for next year’s efforts to repeal it as a new federal tax.
Roberts’ vote, along with those of the court’s four liberal justices, preserved the largest expansion of the nation’s social safety net in more than 45 years, including the hotly debated requirement that nearly everyone have health insurance or pay a penalty.
The aim is to extend coverage to more than 30 million people who now are uninsured.
The decision meant the huge overhaul, still taking effect, could proceed and pick up momentum over the next several years, with an impact on the way that countless Americans receive and pay for their personal medical care.
The ruling handed Obama a campaign-season victory in rejecting arguments that Congress went too far in approving the plan. However, Republicans quickly indicated they would try to use the decision against him.
At the White House, Obama declared, “Whatever the politics, today’s decision was a victory for people all over this country.” Blocks away, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney renewed his criticism of the overhaul, calling it “bad law” and promising to work to repeal it if elected in November.
Demonstrators for and against the law crowded the grounds outside the Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill as Roberts, sitting at the center of the nine black-robed justices inside, announced the decision to a packed courtroom.
Breaking with the other conservative justices, Roberts wrote the judgment that allows the law to go forward. He explained at length the court’s view of the insurance mandate as a valid exercise of Congress’ authority to “lay and collect taxes.”
Roberts, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, opposed by young Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and much-criticized by Democrats in recent years, sided with his court’s liberals on a major case for the second time this week as the justices concluded their 2011-12 term.
On Monday, he had voted to invalidate parts of Arizona’s tough crackdown on illegal immigrants.
In the health-care case, Congress had referred to a penalty, not a tax, on people who don’t obtain insurance. But Roberts said the court would not get hung up on labels. Among other indications it is a tax, Roberts said, “the payment is collected solely by the IRS through the normal means of taxation.”
“Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness,” Roberts said.
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