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Published January 19, 2011, 05:35 PM

Senate Fight Looms After House Health Care Repeal

House Republicans passed a largely symbolic resolution Wednesday to repeal the nation's new health care law, fulfilling a top campaign promise and setting the stage for a renewed battle in the Senate.

By: Noam N. Levey, Lisa Mascaro, MCT

(MCT)

WASHINGTON — House Republicans passed a largely symbolic resolution Wednesday to repeal the nation's new health care law, fulfilling a top campaign promise and setting the stage for a renewed battle in the Senate.

The Senate showdown may not begin for several weeks, but promises to be substantially messier and more drawn out than the debate just completed in the House.

The result could be a return to bitter, partisan gridlock ahead of a budget confrontation in March, when the health law repeal could become intertwined with a debate over federal spending.

House GOP lawmakers, who hold a commanding majority, easily passed their two-page repeal resolution Wednesday after less than two days of floor debate. Three Democrats joined all 242 Republicans in support of the repeal resolution.

The remaining 189 Democrats, including 10 who opposed the law last year, voted against repeal. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was wounded in this month's shooting rampage in Tucson, did not vote.

In the Senate, Republicans will have to use contentious procedural maneuvers to pressure Democrats to vote on a repeal measure. Democrats retain a 53-47 edge in the Senate, counting two independents who caucus with them, and Democratic leaders firmly oppose repeal.

"The Democratic leadership in the Senate doesn't want to vote on this bill. But I assure you, we will," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement Wednesday after the House vote.

If Senate Democrats block a repeal vote, as they have vowed to do, GOP lawmakers could look for ways to force Democrats to debate unpopular parts of the law like the insurance mandate, a move that could further inflame partisan tensions."It will be a procedural game of cat and mouse in the Senate to bring up repeal votes," said Michael Franc, who works closely with congressional Republicans as head of government relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "It's guerrilla tactics."

Even if the moves fall short, they are likely play well with the GOP base. Conservative Republicans and tea party activists are looking to GOP senators to be as aggressive as their House counterparts in pushing repeal.

"If you throw it over to the Senate ... and these senators are sitting on their hands not getting anything done ... you can expect the senators to have a very unhappy first recess home," said former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now leader of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports the tea party movement.

Senate Republicans are being challenged to use every rule at their disposal to engineer a showdown.

"If the supporters of a full repeal of 'Obamacare' don't use the Senate's rules to force a vote on full repeal, don't take them seriously when they say they really want to repeal President Obama's de facto government takeover of health care," wrote Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, in a blog posting.

The rules of the Senate give a single senator enormous power to stall legislation. And repeal-minded senators could threaten to filibuster even the most routine floor procedures until a vote is scheduled, including those expected next week on the rules and organization of the Senate.

Conservative GOP senators — including Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — are already preparing repeal strategies, according to aides. Some are preparing for a two-year legislative campaign. "This isn't a one-shot deal," said Coburn spokesman John Hart.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is also among those urging a vote on repeal. Hatch faces re-election in 2012, two years after tea party activists drove Utah's other incumbent GOP senator from office.

"House Republicans have listened to the American people by acting to repeal this law. The question is whether the White House and its allies in the Senate will follow," Hatch said in a statement.

The brass-knuckled repeal strategy is not without risk, some conservatives warn.

Independent voters, who were critical to GOP electoral gains in November, do not want years of gridlock that produce no alternative to the current health care law, said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster who helped develop the Republican strategy to discredit the health care law in 2009.

For their part, some Democrats say there is a political opportunity in defending their signature law using personal stories from Americans now benefitting from the changes in insurance industry practices.

More targeted GOP legislation that focuses on eliminating unpopular parts of the new law — such as a new tax reporting requirement for businesses — could make Republicans look more constructive.

And Republican lawmakers are confident they could peel off conservative Democrats on such initiatives.

During last year's health care debate, a handful of Democratic senators voted for unsuccessful GOP amendments to strip out provisions of the law. Among the provisions, which survived, were taxes on medical device makers, a new government long-term care insurance program, and a new board to review Medicare spending.

Frontline Democrats up for re-election in 2012 — including Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Florida's Bill Nelson, Montana's Jon Tester and Missouri's Claire McCaskill — may agree to some of these fixes now.

But legislative fixes also carry political risks for Republicans.

"The things that may be fixed might make 'Obamacare' look better," said Joe Antos, a health care economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "That might take away some of the issue for the 2012 election."

For their part, GOP leaders aren't saying when or how they will produce an alternative, or push more limited legislation targeting pieces of the health care overhaul.

"I don't know that we need artificial deadlines," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters at the Capitol Wednesday.

House Republicans start a series of hearings to highlight what they see as problems with the Obama overhaul Thursday. The Senate returns to work Monday.

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Tribune Washington bureau staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.

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