WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court on Monday appeared prepared to decide the fate of President Barack Obama's sweeping healthcare law soon, rather than delaying for years a ruling on the mandate that Americans buy insurance or pay a penalty.

In the first of three days of historic arguments, the justices voiced doubt that a US tax law requiring that people pay first and litigate later should postpone a ruling on the legal challenge to the president's signature domestic legislative achievement.

At the core of the healthcare law, signed by Obama in 2010, is a requirement that people obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. The question on Monday was whether people can challenge this so-called individual mandate before paying the penalty and seeking a refund.

The Obama administration and the challengers - including 26 of the 50 states - agreed that the case should be decided now. One of the four US appeals courts that ruled on the law prior to the case going to the high court held that the tax law barred the challenges until the penalty was paid. The justices then appointed an outside private lawyer to argue that position.

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