WASHINGTON — The heart of the Obama administration's health care overhaul hanging in the balance, the Supreme Court is turning to whether the rest of the law can survive if the crucial individual insurance requirement is struck down.
The justices also will spend part of Wednesday, the last of three days of arguments over the health law, considering a challenge by 26 states to the expansion of the Medicaid program for low-income Americans, an important feature toward the overall goal of extending health insurance to an additional 30 million people.
The first two days of fast-paced and extended arguments have shown that the conservative justices have serious questions about Congress' authority to require virtually every American to carry insurance or pay a penalty.
The outcome of the case will affect nearly all Americans and the ruling, expected in June, also could play a role in the presidential election campaign. Obama and congressional Democrats pushed for the law's passage two years ago, while Republicans, including all the GOP presidential candidates, are strongly opposed.
But the topic the justices take up Wednesday only comes into play if they first find that the insurance mandate violates the Constitution. If they do, then they will have to decide if the rest of the law stands or falls.
The states and the small businessgroup opposing the law say the insurance requirement is central to the whole undertaking and should take the rest of the law down with it.
The administration argues that the only other provisions the court should kill in the event the mandate is stricken are insurance revisions that require insurers to cover people regardless of existing medical problems and limit how much they can charge in premiums based on a person's age or health.
The federal appeals court in Atlanta that struck down the insurance requirement said the rest of the law can remain in place, a position that will be argued by a private lawyer appointed by the justices, H. Bartow Farr III.
On Tuesday, the conservative justices sharply and repeatedly questioned the validity of the insurance mandate.