Ruling surprises, angers healthcare opponents gathered at Supreme Court

Ten minutes into the reading of Thursday’s Supreme Court healthcare ruling, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) was confident the controversial law was on track to be overturned. 

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Lee was among a trio of Republican senators — including Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) — who were in the chambers when Chief Justice John Roberts read the much-anticipated opinion. 

Lee, a longtime Supreme Court wonk, told The Hill that Roberts spent nearly quarter of an hour explaining why the individual mandate — the heart of the expansive healthcare act — could not be upheld under the Commerce Clause.

“It certainly sounded like an across-the-board victory” for opponents of the healthcare law, Lee said. 

And then Roberts switched course, delving into the tax argument, and court goers realized “what actually was happening ... that the Supreme Court was going to let this stand.”

“All of a sudden you saw people raising their eyebrows, turning to their neighbor — turning to the left, turning to the right, smiling, frowning, reacting as either horrified or overjoyed,” Lee explained to reporters outside the court, following the ruling.

His response was one of many reactions from lawmakers who'd been inside the Supreme Court, and those congregating on the sidewalk after the ruling. 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), one of two House Republicans dispatched by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to sit in the court, said there was "some confusion" when Roberts began reading his opinion by ruling against the government's argument on the Commerce Clause. 

"I was hopeful, especially after he ruled on the Commerce Clause," she said. "And then as he was moving through the tax provisions, I was getting this uneasy sense as to where he was headed. And I was very disappointed in the final decision."

McMorris Rodgers said there was silence in the courtroom even after the decision was read, in accordance with Supreme Court practice — in stark contrast to the chanting outside that could be heard on the Capitol steps hundreds of yards away.

Though supporters of the president’s healthcare law attempted to gather and speak in favor of the court’s ruling, they were drowned out by dueling public address systems provided by the anti-Obama contingent.

Critics of the healthcare law — who deride the legislation as “ObamaCare” — took solace in the court’s justification of the law as a “tax.” They believe the ruling will be unpalatable to voters at a time when raising taxes is widely unpopular, especially in an election year.

GOP South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that Democrats, who swore the healthcare law was not a tax before it was passed into law, will now have to explain themselves to voters.

“I think a lot of Democrats are going to wake up today and say ‘I’ve just been ruled by the court to be a massive tax increase senator.’ ... The centerpiece of the debate in America now is not just about healthcare, it’s about whether Congress passed a tax and lied to them about it. Are they going to get away with it?” Graham said in a sidewalk interview outside the Supreme Court.

Lee contended that the law’s victory will be short-lived, for two reasons: the majority opinion and the political landscape.

“[The ruling is] hollow because the court ruled that Congress doesn’t have the power to do this under that Commerce Clause. It’s temporary because the people understand that now that this is being upheld as a tax, this isn’t going to be politically popular. It was already unpopular ... it is going to become a lot less popular now.”

While the justices were handing down the opinion in the august court building, hundreds of people crowded outside. Nearly half were reporters, TV crews, photographers and pundits. Interested Capitol Hill staffers stood in the balmy summer morning snapping photos on their smartphones, complaining that Twitter had crashed.

Capitol Police on bicycles lined the west side of First Street to prevent the crowd from crossing the busy road.

Conservative Tea Party activists, who garnered much attention in the height of the 2009 heated town-hall meetings for their opposition to the healthcare law, had the loudest public address system.

Conservative lawmakers lined up for a chance to drown out the sprinkling of pro-Obama activists shouting obscenities as the Tea Party  activists spoke.

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who is running for the Senate, agitated activists by charging that the United States is suffering "third stage cancer of socialism!”

“You all are liars!” an Obama supporter yelled at Akin.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) demanded an investigation into Justice Elena Kagan’s decision not to recuse herself from the healthcare ruling – even though she was Obama’s solicitor general during the time when the president was working to pass the healthcare law.

“She should be investigated because she basically, in effect, said ‘I had nothing to do, as solicitor general, with the most important bill to my boss — when my job is to give advice.’ So either she was negligent, or she lied in this case, and if she did, we need to know about it,” Gohmert told reporters gathered behind the speakers on the steps.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a former Republican presidential candidate, had the greatest effect on the agitated crowd. 

Individuals clamored to get a peek at Bachmann, who sat in the court room to listen to the justices deliver their opinion. She seized on Roberts’s final remarks, in which he noted that the court would not “protect the American people from bad political decisions.”

That statement prompted dueling chants of “four more months” from Obama opponents and “four more years” from Obama supporters. 

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) told The Hill that the ruling should be a major motivation for his party to get to the polls in November. 

"They should be motivated. I think anybody that’s interested about individual liberties and individual rights should be fired up now," Forbes said. 

—Russell Berman contributed to this story.