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A proposed change in the Kansas Constitution aimed at blocking the state from implementing new federal health insurance mandates failed Tuesday in the state House, the same day President Barack Obama signed sweeping federal legislation into law.
The vote on the "Health Care Freedom Amendment" was 75-47. But supporters needed a two-thirds majority, or 84 of 125 votes, for passage of what many of them view as the strongest possible statement against the new federal law.
The measure would add a new section to the state constitution to prohibit Kansas from requiring any individual or business to buy health insurance or from imposing fines if they don't. If the measure succeeded, Kansas would be in conflict with the new federal law's mandate for most Americans to purchase coverage, starting in 2014.
Supporters argued that amending the constitution would bolster Kansas' position for a legal challenge to the new federal law. They also said it would be the best way to make a statement because an amendment would have to be adopted by a majority of voters.
Some states already have challenged the new law. Attorneys general from 13 other states sued the federal government Tuesday moments after the president signed the bill, claiming it is unconstitutional because it is an unfunded madate and exceeds federal powers.
Republicans who pushed the proposal had strong backing from the tea party movement, which argues the new federal law attacks individual liberties. Chris Tawney, a Manhattan nurse and a member of the Flint Hills Tea Party, said she and other Kansans will make House members' votes an issue in their re-election campaigns.
"It will follow them," she said after the vote. "They represent us, but they're not listening."
Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who voted against the proposed amendment, suggested Kansans will start to like the federal law as they learn about its contents. He said his constituents want to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions and to keep their young adult children on their insurance -- both issues covered by the federal law.
"There are a lot of things that people in my district like," Ward said. "I think in my district and most of Kansas, they think it's premature to do a constitutional amendment."
Tuesday's vote didn't quite kill the measure, because the chamber's rules give members 24 hours to reconsider an action if someone on the prevailing side asks. One "no" vote was cast by Rep. Virgil Peck, a conservative Tyro Republican who supports the amendment.
Asked about his vote, Peck joked that he'd punched the wrong button at his desk. Then, becoming serious, he said, "There's still some work to be done."
If supporters get the House to reconsider, they also need a two-thirds majority in the Senate to put their proposal on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
If the House won't reconsider the proposed amendment, supporters have other options.
They could attempt to enact a new state law to prohibit Kansas from requiring any individual or business to buy health insurance. But they'd have to persuade Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson to sign it, and he said Monday that with the federal law in place, "It's time to move forward."
There's also the possibility of suing the federal government. Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, a Democrat, said he's reviewing the new law.