By Alex Roarty
PoliticsPA Staff Writer
HARRISBURG – Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett said Tuesday that his lawsuit to overturn the newly minted federal health care bill is rooted in legitimate questions about the bill’s constitutionality, not partisan politics.
Corbett, also the state’s leading GOP gubernatorial candidate, has faced a broadside of criticism from Democrats since announcing Monday he would join 12 other state attorney generals in the lawsuit. Democratic officials, ranging from Governor Ed Rendell to state Democratic Party Chairman T. J. Rooney, have derided the attorney general’s decision as political grandstanding.
“You guys are going to take whatever shots you want to take on this,” Corbett told reporters during an afternoon press conference. “I believe this is a 10th Amendment issue.”
He added: “If I wasn’t running for governor, would I be up here? Yes.”
At the heart of his lawsuit, the attorney general says, is what he called the federal government’s unconstitutional mandate that every citizen buy health insurance, which he would give Washington “unprecedented power” and “renders the 10th Amendment meaningless.” The commerce clause does not grant the government this right and other cases, such as United States v. Lopez and United States v. Morrison, have shown it cannot regulate non-commercial activities, he said.
Granting the federal government the power to force citizens to buy something, he argued, is a slippery slope.
“If the federal government forces you to buy this, can the federal government force you to buy anything else?” Corbett asked. “Right now we would say ‘No,’ but unless this is tested in the courts … Could we be forced to buy a certain brand of car? I would say no, and logic dictates that would be the case, but this has opened that door to at least the realm of speculation.”
Pennsylvania joins Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington in filing the suit. The suit is officially filed in the federal court in the northern district of Florida.
Corbett’s legal explanation will likely do little to quell criticism from Democrats that he’s playing politics with the attorney general’s office.
The state’s chief prosecutor faces Sam Rohrer in the Republican primary May 18. Rohrer, a state lawmaker from Berks County, has tried to portray himself as a more authentic conservative than the attorney general, who he has said lacks his fiscal conservative credentials.
Corbett remains the heavy favorite to win the GOP nomination, although polls continue to show more than half of primary voters still undecided.
The attorney general’s Democratic gubernatorial rivals piled on to the criticism throughout the day Tuesday.
Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, who has aggressively tried to stake ground as the field’s most liberal candidate, issued the first salvo in a morning press release, calling Corbett’s lawsuit “stupefying.”
“Mr. Corbett needs to concentrate on things here in Pennsylvania, instead of trying to negate one of the best and most significant pieces of legislation in the history of this country,” he said.
Hoeffel, who has not shied away from challenging Corbett on the campaign trail, called on his Democratic gubernatorial rivals to join in his criticism. Hours later, they did.
“Tom Corbett is working against Pennsylvania families by pursuing this lawsuit, which is a mistake and an unwise use of the Attorney General’s office,” said Dan Onorato, the Allegheny County chief executive, in a statement.
The Democratic front-runner called Corbett’s move a “political stunt.”
State Senator Anthony Williams, who called Tuesday’s passage of the health care bill a “historic moment,” also criticized the state’s chief prosecutor.
“It is disappointing to see the attorney general, whose job is to protect the law, attempt to undermine those goals and the law of the land,” said the lawmaker from Philadelphia. “And on top of that, he’s using taxpayers’ money to try and block progress. He 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.”
A spokesman for Jack Wagner told the news-service Capitolwire the auditor general felt similarly about the proposal.
The blunt criticism from each of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates suggest they see Corbett’s decision to join in the lawsuit as politically vulnerable in a general election, banking on the fact independent voters might see his move as political grandstanding.
The state Republican Party, on the other hand, saw the Democratic candidates’ criticism of Corbett as an opportunity to tie each to what they think is an unpopular bill.
“While our Republican gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Tom Corbett is fighting this unconstitutional piece of legislation, his Democratic challengers are endorsing it as good policy,” GOP Chairman Rob Gleason said in a statement. “Pennsylvanians don’t want to elect a candidate who will run our state like extreme liberal Nancy Pelosi. We need to elect a leader who will look out for the best interests of the Pennsylvania taxpayer. Pennsylvania needs a fighter like Tom Corbett!”