TOPEKA | Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt joins his fellow Republicans in assailing the federal overhaul of health care as an attack on personal liberty, but he also warns that the U.S. Supreme Court may take a narrower view, making it possible for the law to survive legal challenges.
Schmidt won his office in 2010 and made the health care law championed by President Barack Obama a major issue in his campaign. He said during a recent interview with The Associated Press that the high court's ruling could be a "fork-in-the-road decision" that either significantly limits the federal government's reach or makes it virtually limitless.
He acknowledged, though, that while arguments about personal liberty are compelling to him, the high court may focus instead on the health care system.
Kansas is among 26 states challenging the law critics deride as "Obamacare" and Schmidt planned to leave Monday morning for Washington, where the Supreme Court has scheduled six hours of arguments over three days. With seating limited, Schmidt expects to attend only Wednesday's session but intends to confer with fellow attorneys general all three days. GOP officials at all levels have forecast the law's downfall, but Schmidt said he won't make any predictions.
"If the court views this case as being about health care, then the defendants, the federal government, have a decent shot," Schmidt said. "We think this is more a case about government powers, limited government, than it is about the issue of the day."
The states challenging the law object not only to the health insurance mandate, but also to an expansion of Medicaid that would cover more poor families and reduce the number of uninsured Americans. Schmidt said states worry that the federal government won't fulfill promises about funding the expansion. He also said it's "coercive" because states face the loss of federal Medicaid dollars if they don't participate.
"There is some constitutional limit to the ability of Congress to do things through coercion that it could not otherwise do," Schmidt. "If this doesn't cross the limit, what does? Medicaid, of course, is either the largest or one of the largest components of almost every state's budget."
Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon dismissed such comments as "scare-tactic stuff."
"Is it a crossroads in terms of federal government power?" she said. "Good Lord, we've been there many times."
Kansas Republicans prospered two years ago by focusing their races on Obama and the health care overhaul and tapping into the tea party movement. The Kansas GOP swept all statewide and congressional races for the first time since 1964 and padded its already sizeable majorities in the Legislature.
Schmidt -- then the state's Senate majority leader -- received 55 percent of the vote over Democrat Steve Six, who was appointed attorney general office in early 2008 by then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is now Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Six had argued that bringing Kansas into legal challenges over the health care law would waste state resources. Schmidt seized on the issue, and a conservative group from Iowa, American Future Fund, also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads attacking Six.
Schmidt said he's traveling to Washington at his own expense and said Kansas' involvement in the health care lawsuit has cost taxpayers only about $800. Wagnon doesn't blame him for going.
"If I were in his shoes, I'd go up there," she said. "He made a big deal out of running on that in his campaign."
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he's not sure how much Schmidt's trip will accomplish.
"It seems to me that Derek Schmidt maybe has a better use of his time," he said.
Schmidt said having a majority of the states involved in challenging the law adds "real weight" to their arguments in what could be a historic case.
"This is a case, that if decided on its merits, will choose one path or another in a fork in a constitutional road," he said. "It matters for individual liberty, and it matters for state budgets and state taxpayers for years to come. It's a fight we ought to be part of."
Kansas attorney general's office: http://ag.ks.gov/home/>
Kansas Democratic Party: http://www.ksdp.org/>