GOP-backed bid to repeal health bill fails in Senate

Republicans now seek to dismantle law by piecemeal

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, addressed a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday. The Senate voted, along party lines, against a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, addressed a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday. The Senate voted, along party lines, against a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A united Democratic front yesterday beat back a Republican effort in the Senate to repeal last year’s sweeping health care overhaul law, but GOP leaders vowed to chisel away at President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.

By a party-line vote of 51 to 47, a Republican amendment to repeal the Affordable Care Act fell 13 votes short of the 60 needed to survive a procedural hurdle. The Republican-controlled US House approved a health care repeal last month.

The vote was largely symbolic and tactical: Republicans had not expected to win and sought instead to use the debate as a forum to attack the overhaul as a flawed government overreach, and Democrats as free-spenders. They hoped to pry away one or two moderate Democrats to expose cracks in the defense of the law, a tactic that did not succeed.

Just having a vote on the repeal was considered a victory for Republicans, since Senate Democrats had vowed to ignore the House vote to repeal. In doing so, Republican leaders were able to uphold a campaign promise to conservative voters and give the freshmen senators who campaigned on repeal the opportunity to cast their first high-profile votes on the matter, said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor. “The Republicans are trying to show fidelity to their base,’’ he said.

The loss, however, demonstrated that even with their takeover in the House and gains in the Senate, Republicans are still the minority party. With Democrats holding the Senate and the White House, the GOP has no ability to deliver the wholesale and dramatic changes demanded by Tea Party movement activists.

Republicans are now forced to shift strategies and attack targeted sections of the health care law, seeking to dismantle it one piece at a time. In doing so, they will seek to keep the issue in the forefront of public debate well into the next election cycle.

That process has already begun. Two Senate Republicans, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Barrasso of Wyoming, introduced a bill earlier this week to allow states to opt out of several key requirements.

“There is going to be a presidential election in 2012, and this health care bill is going to be an issue,’’ said Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican and a favorite of the Tea Party movement.

Several court battles over the law will also keep it in the forefront of public debate. The Senate vote came two days after US District Judge Roger Vinson in Florida ruled that the heart of the law — the requirement that nearly everyone must have insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty — was illegal and made the entire law unconstitutional. Vinson is the second judge to reject the mandate; two other federal judges have upheld it, and most specialists believe the Supreme Court will have the final say once appeals are complete, a process that could take another year or more.

Senators from both parties agreed yesterday on working toward one fix in the law: eliminating a tax reporting requirement that has been widely criticized as too burdensome on businesses. The vote was 81 to 17. The measure still needs final Senate approval, probably this week, and then a vote from the House.

Democrats approved the health care reform law last spring after a long and bitter partisan debate. The law aims to expand insurance coverage to 32 million Americans and institute consumer protections. Democrats believe they are in a strong position to defend the law now that several popular aspects have been enacted, such as drug savings for seniors, a ban on insurers denying coverage to children with preexisting conditions, and the assurance that young adults can stay on their parents’ medical plans until age 26.

“This is the difference between giving people rights and taking them away,’’ said Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, in a speech before yesterday’s vote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, had offered the repeal as an amendment to an unrelated bill funding aviation programs. The ensuing debate had a feeling of déjà vu — arguments that played out in early 2010 were recycled.

“We need to . . . get back to a capitalistic system,’’ said Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican. The Senate, he said, should start over on health care reform.

Several Republicans seized on Vinson’s ruling as vindication for their arguments that Congress had overstepped its authority.

Democrats cited estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that the health reform law would reduce the federal deficit by $230 billion in its first decade.

Republicans claim that the budget office estimates are based on faulty data and assumptions.

Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, belittled the repeal effort as a political exercise and criticized Republicans for failing to present a substitute bill: “It’s easy to sit there and say repeal; what would you put in its place?’’

The Bay State’s senators split on the issue: Democrat John Kerry voted against repeal; Republican Scott Brown supported it.

Mark Arsenault be reached at