Tea party-backed legislation challenging national health care reform in Tennessee stalled in the House Tuesday with the state attorney general saying the measure probably is unconstitutional.
The House Commerce Committee adjourned without voting on the so-called Health Freedom Act. The legislation, which has been cheered on by dozens of tea party activists this month in demonstrations at the Capitol, purports to nullify the new federal law. It also orders state Attorney General Bob Cooper to defend Tennesseans who are penalized for disobeying the law's mandate that all Americans buy insurance.
In a new opinion, Cooper stated "a court likely would determine" the state legislation is unconstitutional because federal laws supersede those of the states under the Constitution's Supremacy Clause.
Cooper also said the attorney general would not defend Tennesseans who disobey the federal law. The "attorney general has a duty to defend the constitutionality and validity of state legislation except in those instances where the attorney general is of the opinion that such legislation is not constitutional," he wrote.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, urged the Commerce Committee to adopt his measure despite Cooper's opinion.
"The AG is one man’s opinion," he said. "This is something we can allow the courts to settle. ... Any bill that we pass can be challenged on its constitutionality, and this one very well may be at some point, but it would be my intention to go forward with this bill."
But the committee adjourned after Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, began slowly reading the three-page opinion out loud in a kind of filibuster. Earlier, Naifeh tried to amend the bill to say that anyone who chooses to disobey the law also loses any right to participate in any other federal health care program, including Medicare.
"If they don’t want the government fooling around with them, this ensures that the government is not going to fool around with them," Naifeh said before the committee tabled his amendment.
Republican lawmakers also are urging the attorney general to join 14 other states in suing to block national health care reform. Those states charge that the law exceeds Congress’s powers to regulate commerce, violates 10th Amendment protections of state sovereignty, and imposes an unconstitutional direct tax. Cooper is reviewing whether to join that lawsuit, according to his spokeswoman, Sharon Curtis-Flair.