WASHINGTON - A federal judge on Monday ruled unconstitutional a key provision of President Obama's landmark health-care overhaul - its mandate for nearly all Americans to buy health insurance coverage - pushing the law a step closer to a Supreme Court showdown.

U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson, a Republican appointee serving the Eastern District of Virginia, said Congress exceeded its constitutional power when it imposed the requirement.

"Despite the laudable intentions of Congress in enacting a comprehensive and transformative health care regime, the legislative process must still operate within constitutional bounds," Hudson wrote.

The mandate - which would compel even healthy Americans to obtain coverage or pay a penalty - is considered key to the plan's financial feasibility.

Should the courts ultimately reject it, it would be "very difficult if not impossible" for the rest of the overhaul to work, said a senior administration official, whom the White House allowed to speak to reporters only on condition of anonymity.

America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's lobbying group, which had opposed the overhaul, said eliminating the mandate while requiring coverage even for preexisting conditions, as the law does, would lead to "skyrocketing costs." The insurance industry can't afford to let people sign up only when they get sick, spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said.

Hudson did not order the government to immediately stop implementing the law.

His 42-page ruling that the insurance mandate exceeds the Constitution's Commerce Clause doesn't address the rest of the sweeping health-care bill. The insurance mandate itself isn't scheduled to take effect until 2014.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who filed the challenge to the mandate that triggered Hudson's ruling, applauded the decision even as he anticipated a Justice Department appeal.

In a video posted on his website, he said that "if the government can order you to buy health insurance, they can order you to buy a car, to buy asparagus, even cauliflower . . . or join a gym. The power is expandable almost without limit if this is allowable and constitutional."

About two dozen cases have been filed challenging the law. One by 20 state attorneys general, including Pennsylvania's incoming governor, Tom Corbett, gets under way Thursday in Florida.

White House officials and advocates of the law stressed that Hudson's ruling was no more important than two prior rulings by federal judges upholding the mandate.

In October, U.S. District Judge George Steeh in Michigan ruled that the insurance mandate fit within congressional power under the Commerce Clause. On Nov. 30, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon in Lynchburg, Va., ruled the same way.

The Commerce Clause says Congress can "regulate commerce . . . among the several states," although the Supreme Court has struggled for years to decide what activities this covers.

"There is a rational basis for Congress to conclude that individuals' decisions about how and when to pay for health care are activities that in the aggregate substantially affect the interstate health care market," Moon declared.

President Bill Clinton appointed Steeh and Moon. President George W. Bush tapped Hudson.

The dueling judicial decisions are feeding expectations that the nation's high court ultimately will be asked to weigh in on the law, which aims to extend coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans.

"We're talking about a couple of years," predicted Andrew Koppelman, a Northwestern University law and political science professor, noting that "it will take maybe a year for the court of appeals to resolve this, and then another year for it to reach the Supreme Court."

Republicans, poised to take control of the House of Representatives next month, seized on Monday's ruling to repeat their calls to repeal the entire legislation, but that's unlikely.

"It's time to repeal it lock, stock, and barrel," Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.) said.

Departing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said her party "will stand firm against attempts to roll back the law." Even after Republicans take over the House, Democrats' continued control of the Senate and White House make repeal virtually impossible for at least two years.

Steeh's ruling in Detroit is being appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati and covering Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

An appeal of Hudson's ruling would go to the Richmond, Va.-based Fourth Circuit court, generally considered among the nation's most conservative. Conflicting appellate court rulings fall to the Supreme Court to resolve.

The 63-year-old Hudson graduated from American University Law School, which he attended at night. Before his appointment to the bench, he served as a federal prosecutor and as the director of the U.S. Marshals Service. Though the Senate approved him on a voice vote, with no stated Democratic opposition, his conservative leanings are well-known.

Hudson's personal financial-disclosure statements filed through 2009 show that he's an investor in Campaign Solutions Inc., a Virginia firm that has done work for assorted Republican politicians, including 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

The head of the firm, Rebecca Donatelli, has said Hudson was a "passive investor" who had owned stock for 13 years. She said the judge had no knowledge of the firm's day-to-day operations.

House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R., Ohio) urged individual states that are following the Hudson ruling to "carefully weigh the benefits of investing time and resources in Obamacare's implementation now that its central mandate has been ruled unconstitutional."

Rulings against aspects of the overhaul - regardless of whether they succeed on appeal - could embolden Republicans in the short term, at least, and weaken Obama and congressional Democrats in the eyes of an electorate that's deeply divided on the merits of the overhaul.

Vick Has Felt Judge's Wrath

Among those who have felt U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson's wrath is

Michael Vick, now the quarterback for the Eagles, who in 2007 received a nearly two-year term - and a scolding - for running a dogfighting ring.

Hudson, 63, rejected Vick's plea for leniency and questioned whether the athlete was truly remorseful. "You were instrumental in promoting, funding, and facilitating this cruel and inhumane sporting activity," he said.

Even before the Vick case and the health-care lawsuit landed in his court, Hudson had experienced enough drama to write an autobiography, Quest for Justice: From Deputy Sheriff to Federal Judge . . . and the Lessons Learned Along the Way.

In 1986, he headed the pornography investigation by the Meese Commission, named for Ronald Reagan's attorney general. The panel said sex crimes may be linked to pornography - a finding some researchers dispute.

- Associated Press

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This article includes information from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press.