WASHINGTON — Blessed with sound bite sensibilities in an all-male scrum of long-winded gray suits, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi stood out in Washington this week as the unofficial spokeswoman for the 26 states that challenged the health care law to the Supreme Court.
Elected in 2010, the former state prosecutor and former Fox News legal commenter inherited the lawsuit from former Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum. But she campaigned on the issue herself and has seized it as her own since taking office at the beginning of 2011.
Beaming on Wednesday after the historic three-day arguments in front of the Supreme Court, Bondi said she thought it went "very well, once again." And she insisted that Florida's opposition to the signature achievement of President Barack Obama's administration is on constitutional, not political grounds.
"As attorneys general, we keep going back to the constitutionality, because that's our job," she said. "We're not here to debate health care policy. It's all about the Constitution and following the law."
Although Bondi has also tackled pill mills in Florida and a number of other initiatives, the health care case has consumed her staff since she took office. She served on the executive committee that chose Paul Clement to argue the case in front of the high court. As the case approached oral arguments, there were as many as three conference calls a week on its status.
One deputy, Tim Osterhaus, was so committed to seeing the arguments that he bought a sleeping bag and camped out in a special line for attorneys the night before the justices tackled the question of individual mandates.
Her predecessor filed the lawsuit in March, minutes after Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. Bondi helped persuade an additional six state attorneys general to join the suit.
Bondi emerged naturally as their spokeswoman, in part because Florida was the lead plaintiff in the case, said South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who, like his Florida counterpart, had a predecessor who took an early and aggressive interest in challenging the federal government on health care.
"She's the best looking face of us all," Wilson noted.
A registered Democrat from 1984 until 2000 when she switched to the Republican Party, she wasn't especially politically involved until running for office.
Today, Bondi, 46, downplays suggestions that the health care lawsuit may have raised her profile — and as a result, her future prospects in the Republican Party.
"I don't care about that," she said. "I care about defeating the health care mandate. That's all I care about."
She repeated her talking points: the legal challenge was about the Constitution, not politics.
"When we were in front of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, everyone kept saying it was about politics. 'You don't stand a chance of winning, because you have two Clinton appointees and one Bush appointee on your panel,' " Bondi said. "And we ended up with the best bipartisan decision in the country. So it's not about politics, it's about the Constitution. And that's what we firmly believe."
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Among fellow Republican attorneys general recapping court arguments with daily press conferences, Bondi served as emcee and chief spokeswoman. And Bondi had the politics nailed. She introduced Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning as "our next United States senator," and pledged that health care would have to go back to Congress for a rewrite.
"When they do go back to the drawing board — and I firmly believe they will have to — I think everyone will read the law at that point. Seriously!" she said, in a dig at the 2,700-page legislation. "Next go-around, they're going to be much more thoughtful, much more cautious."
Bondi doesn't discount the need for health care reform in the United States, however. Among her talking points on the issue is a standard disclaimer that it's an issue desperately in need of addressing. Just follow the Constitution, she says.
"I would be the first one to say we need tremendous health care reform," she said. "But this is not the way to do it."
Leaving a final news conference with several Republican senators, fellow attorneys and somewhat inexplicably, former presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Bondi walked toward the car that was taking her back to the airport and her duties in Tallahassee.
She stopped to take a wistful look at the Supreme Court building. "Can you take my picture in front of it?" she asked her staff.