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Analysis: Missouri GOP wants AG in health care debate

Missouri Republicans are seeking to get the state’s Democratic attorney general involved in the discussion about the federal health care law.

The Missouri Republicans are keeping up pressure over the federal health care law and seeking to draw the state’s Democratic attorney general into the discussion about the overhaul approved last year by Congress.

There were public urgings directed at the attorney general’s office last year, and over the last month, there have been several attempts to spur action.

In mid-January, the Republican-controlled state House approved a resolution that called on Attorney General Chris Koster to challenge the federal health care law or join a lawsuit that already has been filed against the law. The House resolution, which gained support from some Democrats, also urged the attorney general’s office to defend a law approved by voters this past November that bars the government from requiring people to have health insurance or from penalizing them for not having it.

Later, the Republican-controlled Senate added its thoughts with a similar resolution.

And earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and the Republican House and Senate leaders asked Koster for a determination about whether the federal health care law could be enforced in Missouri after a federal judge in Florida ruled that the law was unconstitutional. In their request, the GOP leaders invoked a duty of the attorney general’s office to respond to requests for legal opinions from the Legislature and certain other officials.

“We’re asking Attorney General Koster to get in the game now,” Kinder said.

Republicans say their motivation is about addressing important policy questions and not politics. However, the game they want Koster to join is one that could have political implications for the attorney general.

President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress passed the health care law after a protracted debate. Republicans’ campaign messages in November included an argument against the health care overhaul, and they regained control of the U.S. House from the Democrats while picking up seats in the U.S. Senate. This year, congressional Republicans voted for an attempt to repeal the law, but that was blocked in the Democratic-led Senate.

Meanwhile, a Missouri law to prevent the government from requiring people to have health insurance was approved with about 71 percent of the statewide vote this past August. Koster would appear on the ballot statewide in 2012 if he decides to seek re-election.

Political scientist George Connor said any decision Koster makes on the health care law is likely to be used against him in political ways — even if the attorney general himself discounts any political determinations in choosing what to do.

If Koster sides with the health care law, the move could be potential fodder for a Republican candidate running for attorney general. And if he falls against the law, it could anger people in the Democratic Party, which Koster joined in 2007 after leaving the Republican Party.

“The health care waters are very dangerous for a Democrat, who is elected statewide in Missouri, because a decision either way causes you to be eaten by sharks,” said Connor, who is the head of the political science department at Missouri State University.

The attorney general so far has remained relatively quiet about the health care overhaul. His office has said it is aware of the resolutions from the Legislature asking him to pursue challenges to the health care overhaul. And a spokeswoman has said the office would respond after careful consideration to the legal opinion now sought by Republicans.

Koster, in a statement to The Associated Press, said this past week that the federal health care measure involves a legal question that is not about politics.

“It is unfair to categorize the debate over the reach of the commerce clause as purely partisan,“ Koster said. ”This is one of the fascinating constitutional questions of our time, and it deserves thoughtful and respectful consideration.”

A couple weeks ago, a federal judge in Florida struck down the health care law after concluding that Congress exceeded its authority by requiring nearly all Americans to carry health insurance. The U.S. Justice Department has said it would appeal the ruling.

That means two federal judges now have upheld the law and two have ruled against it. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to get the last word on the health care law, but that could take a year or two.

In the meantime, administration officials have said that for now, the federal government and states would continue carrying out the health care law. Officials in some states have questioned whether the health law currently applies to them after the ruling in Florida.

It is for that question that Kinder and lawmakers said legal advice is needed from the attorney general on the status in Missouri of a health care law that includes requirements for states. House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said he had no partisan motivation but noted there could be a political aspect for Koster depending on what he does. “There is for him if he wants to go against 71 percent of the voters of the state,” said Tilley, R-Perryville.

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