WASHINGTON - America's historic health care overhaul, certain now to touch virtually every citizen's life, narrowly survived an election-year battle at the Supreme Court Thursday with the improbable help of conservative Chief Justice John Roberts.
But the ruling, by a 5-4 vote, also gave Republicans unexpected ammunition to energize supporters for the fall campaign against President Barack Obama, the bill's champion - and for next year's vigorous efforts to repeal the law as a new federal tax
Roberts' vote, along with those of the court's four liberal justices, preserved the largest expansion of the nation's social safety net in more than 45 years, including the hotly debated core requirement that nearly everyone have health insurance or pay a penalty. The aim is to extend coverage to more than 30 million people who now are uninsured
The decision meant the huge overhaul, still taking effect, could proceed and pick up momentum over the next several years, with an impact on the way that countless Americans receive and pay for their personal medical care.
The ruling handed Obama a campaign-season victory in rejecting arguments that Congress went too far in approving the plan. However, Republicans quickly indicated they would try to use the decision against him.
At the White House, Obama declared, "Whatever the politics, today's decision was a victory for people all over this country." Blocks away, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney renewed his criticism of the overhaul, calling it "bad law" and promising to work to repeal it if elected in November.
Demonstrators for and against the law crowded the grounds outside the Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill as Roberts, sitting at the center of the nine black-robed justices inside, announced the decision to a packed courtroom.
Breaking with the other conservative justices, Roberts wrote the judgment that allows the law to go forward. He explained at length the court's view of the insurance mandate as a valid exercise of Congress' authority to "lay and collect taxes." The administration estimates that roughly 4 million people will pay the penalty rather than buy insurance.