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Senators weigh in on impact of Obamacare decision

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt joined "Meet the Press" to discuss Friday's federal court ruling.

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By Ben Kamisar

WASHINGTON — A Friday federal court ruling against the Affordable Care Act once again casts political uncertainty on the future of the law and puts the burden back on Congress once again to find a path forward.

Appearing on Sunday's "Meet the Press," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized the decision that ruled the law unconstitutional, promising Democrats will fight “tooth and nail” to protect the law and Americans’ health care.

"It's an awful ruling," Schumer said. "It undoes pre-existing conditions, it jeopardizes the tens of millions who are getting good funding in the exchange. But it goes way beyond that.”

"We have to undo this awful decision,” he added.

Judge Reed O’Connor, a Fort Worth, Texas-area federal judge, ruled Friday that Congress’ decision to ax the individual mandate in 2017 rendered the entire law unconstitutional. That decision is based in part on the Supreme Court's 2012 ruling that affirmed the law on the idea that the individual mandate was constitutional because of Congress's power to tax.

So if the law’s constitutionality rests in the idea that the individual mandate is a tax, O’Connor wrote, gutting that tax guts the key legal justification for the entire law.

President Trump celebrated the decision as “great news for America” even as Democrats argue the judge erred by not adequately looking into Congress’s intent when it decided to nix the individual mandate specifically instead of repealing the entire law.

But the ruling has no immediate effect, and did not scuttle open enrollment for 2019, which ended on Saturday, one day after O’Connor’s decision. And Democrats have promised to challenge the decision, which could prompt the Supreme Court to ultimately decide the case.

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While the policy implications of the possible roll-back of the law are clear, the political ramifications are stark.

Public perception of the Affordable Care Act has increased dramatically since the early part of the decade, when Republicans chalked up electoral victories on a promise to repeal and replace the law.

The strong Democratic performance in last month’s midterm elections, which gave the party control of the House and saw them only taking limited damage in the Senate, came as the party made health care a central part of its messaging.

And while Republicans have celebrated the decision as an inflection point, a much sought-after court victory that reopens the path to repealing the law through the courts, Republican support of this law became a flash-point during the midterm elections.

So the ruling could put the pressure back on Republicans to settle on a plan that both includes key, popular provisions like protecting those with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to remain on their parents’ health care, while still gutting the parts the party opposes.

Schumer pointed to that tension during his interview.

"It puts a lot of our Republicans in a box because they sort of were two-faced: on the one-hand, they've said they want to preserve pre-existing conditions and preserve health care. On the other hand, Donald Trump and a large number of Republicans brought this court suit,” he said.

“There are going to be a good number of Republicans who are going to really have to make a decision to join us in this intervention or face very severe consequences."

Also joining “Meet the Press,” Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt didn’t enthusiastically praise the legal strategy, repeatedly emphasizing that the ruling has “no immediate impact.”

“When you challenge something like the Affordable Care Act, an attorney general in Texas doesn’t have the obligation to come up with what the alternatives are,” Blunt said.

“We continue to look for more options, more choices, more access to insurance that really meets people's needs, things like the associated health plans, that allow people in small businesses to band together.

Blunt pushed back on concerns that support for the lawsuit hurt Republicans in the midterms—he noted that Missouri Republican Senator-elect. Josh Hawley “won his election pretty handily” despite supporting it. He criticized the Affordable Care Act as “a poorly thought-out plan and said he wouldn’t be interested in a compromise with Democrats that restores the individual mandate at just one penny in an attempt to comply with the decision.

But when asked if he agrees with President Trump’s declaration that the decision is “great news for Americans,” Blunt balked.

“For America, it means we're going to continue to debate this,” he said.