The White House says it isn't worried that 13 state attorneys general are suing to overturn the massive health care overhaul, and many legal experts agree the effort is futile.
But the lawsuit, filed in federal court seven minutes after President Barack Obama signed the 10-year, $938 billion health care bill, underscores the divisiveness of the issue and the political rancor that has surrounded it.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum led the effort to file the suit that claims Congress doesn't have the constitutional right to force people to get health coverage. It also says the federal government is violating the Constitution by forcing a mandate on the states without providing resources to pay for it.
"To that I say, 'Bring it on,'" said White House domestic policy chief Melody Barnes, who cited similar suits filed over Social Security and the Voting Rights Act when those were passed. "If you want to look in the face of a parent whose child now has health care insurance and say we're repealing that ... go right ahead."
McCollum, a Republican running for governor, has been talking about suing to overturn the bill since December. This month he invited other attorneys general to join him. So far South Carolina, Nebraska, Texas, Michigan, Utah, Pennsylvania, Alabama, South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Colorado and Louisiana have agreed.
All the attorneys general are Republican except James "Buddy" Caldwell of Louisiana, a Democrat, who said he signed on because Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal asked him to and he felt the effort had merit.
The lawsuit, filed in Pensacola, asks a judge to declare the bill unconstitutional because "the Constitution nowhere authorizes the United States to mandate, either directly or under threat of penalty, that all citizens and legal residents have qualifying health care coverage."
Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the effort isn't going anywhere.
"This is pure, pure political posturing and they have to know it," he said.
But South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley disputed that characterization, saying his state will have to cut education and other programs to make up for increased Medicaid costs under the overhaul.
"This isn't about attorneys general trying to break into the realm of telling what needs to happen with health care reform," he said. "This is attorneys general saying you went too far with unfunded federal mandates. You exceeded your power under the Constitution."
Not so, said Bruce Jacob, a constitutional law professor at Stetson University in Florida, who said the suit seems like a political ploy and is unlikely to succeed.
"The federal government certainly can compel people to pay taxes, can compel people to join the Army," he said.
Some states are considering separate lawsuits — Virginia filed its own Tuesday — and others, including Missouri, may join the multistate suit. Still others are looking at other ways to avoid participating, like passing legislation to block requirements in the bill.
McCollum predicted his suit would eventually end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The health care bill "is not lawful," he said. "It may have passed Congress, but there are three branches of government."
The lawsuit claims the health care bill violates the 10th Amendment, which says the federal government has no authority beyond the powers granted to it under the Constitution, by forcing the states to carry out its provisions but not reimbursing them for the costs.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, said she strongly disagrees with Attorney General Rob McKenna's decision to sue, calling the lawsuit an effort to "gut the bill."
"There is no reason why we need to spend taxpayer money in the state of Washington to join this suit, when it's going to be litigated no matter what," she said.
The lawsuit also says the states can't afford the new law. Using Florida as an example, it says the overhaul will add almost 1.3 million people to the state's Medicaid rolls and cost the state an additional $150 million in 2014, growing to $1 billion a year by 2019.
"We simply cannot afford to do the things in this bill that we're mandated to do," McCollum said at a press conference after filing the suit. He said the Medicaid expansion in Florida will cost $1.6 billion, including administrative and other costs.
Under the bill, starting in six months, health insurance companies would be required to keep young adults as beneficiaries on their parents' plans until they turn 26, and companies would no longer be allowed to deny coverage to sick children.
Other changes would not kick in until 2014.
That's when most Americans will for the first time be required to carry health insurance — either through an employer or government program or by buying it themselves. Those who refuse will face tax penalties.
No Republicans in the U.S. House or Senate voted for the bill, which Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller in Washington said his agency will vigorously defend.
"We are confident that this statute is constitutional and we will prevail when we defend it," he said.
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