ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is a busy week in the legal battle over President Obama's health care overhaul. A federal judge in Virginia ruled earlier this week that the law is unconstitutional. And today, 20 states made the same case to a federal judge in Florida.
NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson welcomed attorneys to his Pensacola courtroom with a reminder that they're here to argue issues of significant constitutional interests. We're down to a precious two, he said. Those two issues are, first, whether Congress can force everyone to buy health insurance and, secondly, whether the federal government can force states to pay for an expansion of Medicaid, the health care program for the poor.
An attorney for the states, David Rivkin, argued that the overhaul pushed by President Obama is a, quote, "radical interpretation of congressional power." Outside the courthouse, state officials called it an unprecedented federal reach.
Attorney General GREG ABBOTT (Republican, Texas): This, ultimately, is about freedom.
ELLIOTT: Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott of Texas.
Atty. Gen. ABBOTT: This is the biggest encroachment upon our freedom that Congress has ever levied. And if Congress has the power to force Americans to go out and buy something, Americans will lose their freedom. It's liberty and freedom which is being fought for in this courthouse today.
ELLIOTT: During the oral arguments, Judge Vinson, a Reagan appointee, had some pointed questions about the power of Congress. He asked if the federal government has the authority to mandate individuals to buy health insurance, then could Congress deem that broccoli is healthy and mandate everyone eat broccoli once a week?
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ian Gershengorn argued the health care law is different because it's making people pay now through insurance rather than externalizing their costs to the rest of the health care market.
The government's position is that it's appropriate for Congress to regulate that kind of economic decision under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
But in Virginia this week, that argument didn't work. U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson struck down the individual mandate. Two other federal courts have upheld the new law.
The other issue in the Florida case is extending Medicaid coverage to more people. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum says Congress is unfairly coercing states to expand Medicaid rolls.
Attorney General BILL MCCOLLUM (Republican, Florida): The question with regard to Medicaid is a violation of state sovereignty.
ELLIOTT: But case law doesn't bear that out, says Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. The advocacy group filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Medicaid expansion.
Mr. RON POLLACK (Founding Executive Director, Families USA): Never in the history of the Medicaid program and all of the various expansions that have occurred has there ever been a successful challenge to any expansion. And what makes this so ridiculous, frankly, is that, in this case, the expansion is going to be paid for almost exclusively by the federal government.
ELLIOTT: Initially, the federal government will pick up the tab for extending Medicaid and ultimately will bear 90 percent of the cost. Still, these 20 states say that's an undue burden in tight budget times.
Today's arguments were part of the state's attempt to get Vinson to strike down the health care law in a summary judgment without a full trial. Vinson did not give a timetable on when he might rule. Whatever he decides, it seems clear the fate of the Affordable Care Act is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.