WASHINGTON — In this city of rumors and leaks, it has been an excruciating lead-up to the Supreme Court ruling on President Barack Obama's health care law. The decision is expected this month, but virtually no one knows exactly when or what it will say.
Each day brings a new wave of speculation via Twitter and Washington gossip channels. And behind the scenes, Republicans and Democrats lay out strategies for what to do in the moments and days after the most consequential high court decision in a generation — a ruling that will reverberate politically and in the lives of everyday Americans. At the White House and on Capitol Hill, officials and their aides are spinning in advance and preparing their "day of" statements.
At issue is Obama's signature legislative achievement, an expansive revision of the nation's health care system that the court could uphold, throw out or something in between — allowing much of the law to stand, for example, but striking down the requirement that individuals buy insurance.
On Capitol Hill, congressional Republicans have worked hard to synchronize their messages and communicate with presidential candidate Mitt Romney in hopes of getting a political bounce from the ruling, no matter which way it goes. Their plan is to immediately attempt to repeal what might remain of the legislation. Then, step by step, they would propose smaller measures.
In the Obama administration, which has largely declined to entertain questions about what might happen if the court rules against the law, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently acknowledged that officials are prepared for that possibility. "We'll be ready for court contingencies," she told a women's health forum.
The posturing hints not only at the enormous and largely unknown consequences of the decision, but also the sensitivity surrounding the 2010 law, which has emerged as a big issue in the presidential campaign.
Although polls show that Americans are stubbornly divided over the measure, parts of it remain very popular, and many Democrats and Republicans agree that something must be done to rein in ballooning health care costs.
Some Republicans privately express worry that an immediate attempt to repeal what is left of the law would put them on the record as opposing some of the more popular aspects, including mandatory coverage of pre-existing conditions and allowing young people to stay on their parents' insurance plans.
Eager to show that he recognizes the need for reform, Romney reiterated last week that he would repeal Obama's law and elaborated on a health plan he proposed earlier that he said would look more like a "consumer market" rather than a "government-managed utility."
His remarks in Orlando drew an immediate rebuke from Obama campaign officials, who charged that Romney "wants to take us back."
Top providers, such as UnitedHealthcare, Humana and Aetna, have rushed in recent days to reassure their customers that if the entire law is overturned, the companies will continue to offer preventive services without co-pays and allow adult children to remain on their parents' plans.
But the most prominent insurance trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, has been making the case that if only the individual mandate is invalidated and the rest of the law is left intact, premiums will rise and the insurance market for individuals will implode.