Corbett's backing of suit against health law draws criticism
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HARRISBURG -- President Barack Obama signed landmark health care legislation Tuesday, just hours after a Dauphin County jury issued the latest verdicts in the state's Bonusgate investigation.
Beyond the coincidence of time, the events would seem to have little in common. But both ended up directing the political spotlight to the decision-making of Attorney General Tom Corbett, and the perceptions that will influence his campaign for governor. The Bonusgate prosecutions have allowed Mr. Corbett to project an image of a corruption fighter who, supporters are quick to point out, has targeted office-holders of both parties.
But on the heels of the passage of the health care legislation, Mr. Corbett embraced a lawsuit filed by 12 other state attorneys general, all but one Republicans, which contends that the measure is unconstitutional. In attacking the health care bill, Mr. Corbett cast himself into a new role, joining the national political drama at a time when some Republican strategists -- such as Karl Rove and Dick Morris -- argue that the key to victories up and down the November ballot is to attack the policies of the Obama administration.
At a news conference in Harrisburg Tuesday, Mr. Corbett rejected suggestions that his decisions on either issue were tied to his ambitions for governor. But as he spoke, Democratic candidates for governor joined in a chorus of denunciations of his action on the anti-administration legislation.
"Mr. Corbett's ... decision to join a small group of attorneys general from mostly conservative states to challenge this legislation is stupefying," said Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel.
Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato called the move "a taxpayer-funded political stunt with the goal of denying more people coverage and making affordable health care less accessible."
State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, echoed the criticism of the use of public funds for the litigation, claiming that Mr. Corbett, "will have to look millions of people who are suffering in the eye and explain why he's putting politics ahead of their personal health."
While issuing a statement welcoming the legislation, Auditor General Jack Wagner was the only Democratic contender who did not directly criticize the multi-state lawsuit.
In Harrisburg, Mr. Corbett shrugged off his opponents' criticisms. "You (reporters) can take whatever shots you want," he said. "If I was not running for governor, would I still be joining this lawsuit? Yes. We are not playing politics here."
Of the 13 states joining the lawsuit so far, only Louisiana has a Democratic attorney general, he acknowledged, but added that more states might join. In Pennsylvania, as in South Carolina and Florida, where Attorney General Bill McCollum has taken the lead in filing the suit, GOP prosecutors who joined the litigation are running for governor.
Mr. Corbett insisted that the lawsuit is essential to protecting states from an "overreaching" federal government and resisting Congress' effort to force people to "engage in commerce" by buying health insurance.
"What's next? Will they force us to buy something else? Will they tell us to buy a certain brand of car?" he said.
Mr. Corbett and other critics contend the legislation's requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance is a violation of the 10th Amendment, which reserves for the states powers not specifically granted to the federal government.
But Democrats in Washington rejected the claims that the bill oversteps the Constitution. The bill's proponents insist Congress' power to regulate inter-state commerce provides a clear legal foundation for the bill's requirements for the insurance industry. Supporters argue further that the individual mandate to purchase insurance, enforced through the tax code, is based on long-settled case law.
The Democratic National Committee dismissed the states' lawsuit as a political rather than a legal document Tuesday, pointing to commentary noting that the filing's assertions of constitutional violations are not supported by any citations of case law. The DNC also quoted an article by Yale University law professor Jack M. Balkin, which states that for the Supreme Court to strike down the individual mandate, "It would have to reject decades of precedents. It is unlikely [that the court would stage] such a Constitutional revolution."
Whatever the legal verdict, a new Rasmussen survey found that many voters support the concept of the legal challenge. The polling firm found that 49 percent of voters supported the idea of their state challenging the federal law, while 37 percent said they opposed such legal action. The challenge was particularly popular with Republicans, with 72 percent in favor.
In joining the challenge, Mr. Corbett got one more chance to burnish his conservative credentials. As a prosecutor, rather than a legislator or an executive, his office has not typically forced him to take stands on budget issues. But he underscored his promises of fiscal conservatism last month in choosing to sign a no-tax pledge promoted by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
On the Bonusgate prosecutions as on the health care bill, Mr. Corbett on Tuesday repeated his insistence that his decisions were not driven by politics.
John Brabender, Mr. Corbett's chief media strategist, insisted that, "I can tell you now that we will not be talking about Bonusgate -- ever -- in the governor's race."
He also disputed the suggestion that the anti-health care suit represented an effort to nationalize the issues of the governor's campaign.
"I don't think Tom Corbett is doing anything but asking how this legislation affects anything but the families of Pennsylvania," he said.
First Published March 24, 2010 12:00 am