At this moment there are hundreds of Washington, D.C., reporters, lobbyists and pundits with their feet in the starting blocks waiting for the signal to race up the marble steps of the U.S. Supreme Court and hear the decision on health care.
Will the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare," survive intact? Will the judges throw it out? Or -- the third option -- will the Supreme Court chew it up and spit out pieces like the individual mandate, which requires everyone to get health care?
So far, the nine justices have succeeded at one thing: agreeing to a "mum's the word" policy. The Supreme Court chambers, like the Federal Reserve, seem to be more leak-proof than the White House, where President Obama is fighting for his political life amid enough leaks to resurrect the Watergate plumbers.
I don't have the answer. But like everyone else -- Republicans, Democrats, health insurers, consumer advocates and the media -- I'm willing to hazard a guess.
I believe that whatever the decision, it will be messy. Our judges are seldom like Solomon, who refused to cut the baby in half. It seems to me that the four-to-four, conservative-liberal split will give swing justice Anthony Kennedy the honor of deciding the fate of health care reform for 314 million Americans. But given the egos on the court, they may come out with their own separate opinions on different aspects of the law, further complicating the issue.
If the three-day public hearing held in March is any indication of what is to come, then the weak-kneed performance of Obama's solicitor general doesn't make me optimistic that the administration's arguments will prevail. The justices took Donald Verrilli Jr. to the woodshed, asking him pointed questions and poking fun at his answers. Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is facing a contempt vote from the House of Representatives and has recently lost several important cases. Not an impressive team.
But I doubt that the Supremes want to dismantle the whole act or, for that matter, even bothered to read the 2,400-page law and its whirling Rubik's Cube of interconnecting pieces. After all, Justice Antonin Scalia called it "cruel and unusual punishment."
My guess: the individual mandate is gone, but a good portion of the rest of the act is left intact. Or is it? Without the mandate requiring everyone to purchase insurance, can the health care law sustain itself, given all the new Medicaid costs and other expensive features like allowing everyone with pre-existing conditions to obtain coverage?
If I'm right, then both Democrats and Republicans will declare victory. Democrats will point to the popular parts of the act that survived and how much people benefit from them. For example, children likely will remain covered under their parents' policies until age 26, and kids with pre-existing illnesses will stay insured.
Republicans will say that without the mandate, the act is unsustainable and try to throttle it in its entirety, and then attempt to reinstate the parts that people like. Both sides will posture right up to Election Day, so nothing will be done.
Post-election, given a victory, Obama will try to find a new way to fund the act, without the help of what may well be a still-Republican House. What would a President-elect Romney do? Let's not forget that Mitt Romney is no stranger to health care issues and financing. He designed the basic parts of Obamacare back in 2006 when he was governor of Massachusetts. If elected, he knows it's a looming problem, and he'll try to find a pragmatic way to solve it.
For the average Joe, not much will change. Most people already have health insurance either through their employer, individual health care plan or Medicare, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.
A key part of the act, the health insurance exchanges -- where individuals and small businesses would go to state-sponsored websites and obtain coverage at publicly listed prices -- might not happen immediately. But states like Massachusetts, California and New York have already moved ahead with theirs, and if they prove workable, other states will probably follow suit.
But I do think one thing has been decided. Few companies will be tempted to drop their plans and throw employees out on their own. Health care has become too important to American business, and major corporations don't want to risk losing good employees who might jump ship for a better health care plan.