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Not one but two major decisions are expected this week from the U.S. Supreme Court. Both could add heat to the fall campaign: the federal health care law and Arizona's immigration law. Here's what's at stake and why it matters.
Arizona Immigration law
Since border-state Arizona passed a tough immigration law in 2010, the measure has become the symbol of state and local frustration with federal inaction on immigration reform. Many states and cities have adopted “Arizona-style” laws giving police new powers to demand that people show proof of U.S. citizenship, and more are watching for how the Supreme Court rules on a basic question: How far can state and local governments go before intruding on a federal responsibility? The highlights:
What's in there?
The most controversial part of Arizona's law — passed as Senate Bill 1070 — is the “show me your papers” provision. It requires police with “reasonable suspicions” to check the immigration status of persons stopped and to detain those believed deportable. Critics call it an invitation to racial profiling and harassment. Supporters call it enforcement of immigration law.
The law makes it a state crime to fail to carry one's immigration papers, as federal law requires. It allows Arizona residents to sue cities not enforcing the law. It also makes it a crime to hire day laborers or be hired from a vehicle blocking traffic. And it makes it a crime to transport or hide an illegal immigrant.
More important is ...
Deciding just who can do what. People are looking to a ruling — widely expected to be a mixed bag of thumbs-up and thumbs-down — to clarify what lower levels of government may do about illegal immigration and what actions are reserved only for the federal government and federal agents. It's a big question for states and cities that contend they bear an undue share of a problem Washington has ignored.
Other states have passed “Arizona-style” laws that are under court challenge, and more are watching from the sidelines. Immigration remains a hot legislative topic in states. Almost all, including Iowa and Nebraska, considered bills on the subject this year. Cities such as Fremont, Neb., have adopted crackdowns, often aimed at those who hire or rent to undocumented immigrants. Some local governments, such as San Francisco's, have enacted “sanctuary” policies limiting police cooperation with federal deportation. All await the Supreme Court's decision.
What happens next?
The court's ruling is sure to feed the national debate over illegal immigration. That ramped up anew this month when President Barack Obama ordered the threat of deportation halted for about 800,000 immigrants younger than 30 who entered the country illegally as children. As for Arizona's law, even if it survives the high court, other legal challenges await, including a lawsuit by civil rights groups.
Federal health care law
The Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” to both critics and backers — is the biggest piece of health law since Medicare and Medicaid were begun in 1965. And the most bitterly debated. One side sees in it the dream of affordable health care as an American birthright, a dream dating to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempts at national health insurance in Social Security. The other side sees it as a ruinous recipe for a bloated welfare nanny state. Polls show Americans love or hate it. More than half the states sued to block it. The highlights:
The individual mandate
It's the law's heart and the court's big decision: Can the government compel citizens to acquire health insurance? Would that trample liberty by letting government reach further into personal lives than the Constitution allows? Or is it a permissible, more efficient way than taxation to get citizens to pay a fair share for the health care they inevitably need?
If the court upholds
Most obviously: 30 million Americans who lack coverage will get it, and be required to help pay the cost, starting in 2014. The law's vast experiment — a public-private system intended to control costs and improve service — will move forward. So will the arguing over the law's consequences.
If the court blocks
A lot of planning — by states, insurance companies, individuals and businesses — since the law passed in 2010 will be upended, and a lot of uncertainty will return about who can get coverage and for what. Some of the law's changes are popular and might survive: tougher oversight of health insurers; letting parents keep children on their coverage until age 26; free preventive care screenings; protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Even some critics say they favor these gains and would fight to save them. And some insurers say they'll keep them. The main reason so much is unclear gets down to the issue of ...
That's legalese for: If the court strikes down the individual mandate, must it junk the whole law? The Obama administration has argued it's all or nothing, that the whole law stays or goes. Opposing lawyers have argued that the mandate can be surgically removed, saving all or part of the rest.
Relentlessly rising health costs are how we got to this point — the pocketbook issue that worries everyone. The law's backers say its basic approach — get everyone into the insurance pool so the risk is shared — is the only sure way to control costs and expand coverage. Otherwise, the covered keep paying for the not covered, because an ER can't turn away the bleeding uninsured and must pass along the costs of treating them. GOP critics say costs can be curbed through something less intrusive.
Yet to come
The one sure bet: No matter the ruling, it will open a new chapter of national debate — likely in the middle of a bitter election campaign. Republican critics vow to “repeal and replace” the law if it survives, although they haven't said with what. The president publicly voices confidence the law will be upheld and says he's making no backup plan. Both sides are preparing political responses for a mixed ruling, considered a likely outcome. Some analysts predict Obama, if the law is stricken, will campaign against the court as a tool of the GOP's right wing. Expect charges and countercharges to fly.
Besides the mandate, Obamacare includes:
Already in force
» Can keep children on your insurance until they turn 26
» No out-of-pocket charge for preventive care, such as cancer screenings
» Insurer can't cancel coverage once you get sick
» Can't deny coverage to kids with pre-existing conditions
» Rebates if insurers spend too few premium dollars on medical care
Due in 2014
» Exchanges, where you can shop for coverage; financial aid for lower income » Can't deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions