TOPEKA, Kan. — A proposed "Health Care Freedom Amendment" to the Kansas Constitution won approval Friday in the state House, but the measure faces a doubtful future in the Senate amid questions about how far it would go toward blocking a major part of last year's federal health care law.
The House vote was 91-27, giving supporters seven votes more than the two-thirds majority they needed for adoption of a proposed constitutional change. The proposal would add a new section to the state constitution saying no law or rule shall force an individual or employer to buy health insurance — a challenge to the federal law's requirement that most Americans purchase insurance, starting in 2014.
The result in the House was expected, given that the measure won first-round approval Thursday by a similarly large margin. Supporters' goal is to put the measure on the statewide ballot for voters to consider in November 2012.
But they also need a two-thirds majority in the Senate, or 27 of 40 votes, and that's likely to be difficult even though it, like the House, is controlled by Republicans. Last year, senators were almost evenly divided over a similar measure. Even some Republicans who dislike the federal law championed by Democratic President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress want to wait for the outcome of federal lawsuits Kansas and other states have filed.
"Why are we wasting taxpayer dollars and legislative time fighting something we're already fighting through the court system?" said Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican.
Strong opposition among Republicans and the rise of the tea party movement have led states to look for ways to challenge the federal law. Last year, voters in Arizona, Oklahoma and neighboring Missouri approved constitutional changes similar to the one being considered in Kansas. Colorado voters rejected a proposal.
Thursday's debate in the Kansas House allowed GOP members to make now-familiar arguments that the law will hurt both consumers and businesses, while making the federal government far too intrusive.
Critics focused on doubts that amending the state constitution would have any practical effect if Kansas residents want to block the health insurance mandate in their state.
The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. Some House members said the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately will decide whether that power allows the health insurance mandate, not state laws or amendments to state constitutions.
Kansas is among 26 states challenging the health care law in a federal lawsuit in Florida, where a judge struck down the law as unconstitutional last month. An appeal is expected.
"I think most of us understand that this is purely a political exercise," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat and attorney who opposed the amendment. "By putting this in the constitution, it is not going to have any consequence over what's going to happen in the federal courts."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican and attorney, came close to conceding the latter point in his defense of the proposed amendment. He said it's "an overstatement" to suggest such a change in the state constitution could nullify a federal law in Kansas or directly block its implementation.
But he said the more states amend their constitutions, "The more ammunition there is for people who are litigating this issue."
Yet House Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said she believes a constitutional change will allow Kansas to block the federal law.
The House considered a similar amendment last year, and it received 75 votes, nine short of the necessary two-thirds majority. But after last year's elections, the House has a 92-33 GOP majority and 33 new Republican members, many sympathetic to the tea party movement.
Only two Senate seats were on the ballot in special elections, with all 40 up for election in 2012, and Emler doesn't see a big philosophical shift. Senators considered their own amendment last year; it failed to clear committee, and the Senate voted 21-19 against pulling it out for a debate by the entire chamber.
Proposed "Health Care Freedom Amendment" is HCR 5007.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org