It didn't save them from catastrophic losses at the polls, but Democrats say the nuts-and-bolts benefits already in place thanks to the health care law, such as coverage for young adults and people with pre-existing health conditions, will derail House Republicans' repeal efforts.
"The new law is giving people more freedoms and more choices," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. "Repeal really takes away all of those freedoms and shifts power back to the insurance companies."
As the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday, the fight over health care has intensified. Democrats are counting on Americans' appreciation of the law's early-acting benefits — and their party's continued majority in the Senate — to save the initiative.
Republicans, who take control of the House, have scheduled a vote Friday on repealing the health care overhaul. They will use the same sort of expedited debate rules that Democrats used to push the bill through Congress last year over Republican objections.
"The repeal bill is going to be a very straightforward document. It is going to reflect what I think most people inside the Beltway and outside the Beltway understand about the health care bill that was passed - it is a job-killing health care bill that spends money we don't have," said Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
The House and Senate meet Wednesday to swear in new members, agree on rules and establish each chamber's officers. In the House, that means Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, will become speaker and join the line of constitutional succession to the presidency. Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, outgoing Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and other House Democrats will see their party's four years in the majority come to an abrupt end.
Democrats nevertheless predicted that it will be impossible for the GOP majority to repeal the health care law without undoing the changes that polls show are favorable to Americans. Those include ending lifetime caps on health insurance benefits and ensuring access to coverage for consumers with pre-existing health problems.
Republicans say they will follow up this week's repeal vote with a longer-term process to replace the law and reform the system under conservative principles.
The new House rules will make it easier to cut taxes and tougher to increase entitlement spending, and will offer initiatives on legislative openness such as releasing the text of a bill at least three days before the House votes on it.
Those rules are subject to a majority vote and are certain to be adopted.
In the Senate, however, where Democrats retain a majority with a significantly smaller margin, some Democrats hope to spark a fight over filibuster rules, which they say Republicans abused last year to halt President Obama's agenda. The practical upshot, they say, was that Democrats effectively needed a 60-vote majority to win on controversial bills and nominations.
Led mainly by newer senators but joined by some more senior members, a group of Democrats is proposing a ban on the ability to filibuster motions to bring bills to the floor, though filibusters still could block final passage of legislation. The lawmakers also want to make filibusters more painful by requiring those blocking legislation to speak on the floor. Under the current system, those trying to break a filibuster have to do the heavy lifting.
Other first-week House action will include a vote to cut the chamber's expenses by 5 percent, which Republicans said will save $35.2 million this year. That is the first of what the GOP said will be weekly votes on specific spending cuts. The resolution is binding only on the House.
With control of Congress split, neither party will be able to push through its priorities unilaterally.
But on the day before Congress convened, Republicans and Democrats said they shared overriding goals such as producing an economy that creates jobs. Democrats said they want to reduce the deficit, while Republicans said spending cuts are paramount.
"I think what the American people are really looking for are results," Mr. Cantor said. "Results are going to be judged through the prism of whether jobs are created and whether spending is cut and the deficit is brought back under control."
Although health care was the dominant issue during the past two years of Congress, it is shaping up to be just as prominent this year.
Republicans are taking heat for saying they will bring their repeal bill to the floor under restricted debate rules despite promises during the campaign season to open up the legislative process.
"Just last year, they were calling for less spending, more debate and an open amendment process. Now, their first move out of the gate is to increase the deficit by $140 billion, shut down debate and prohibit amendments," said Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat who is trying to offer amendments to Republicans' repeal bill.
Democrats said they'll block any repeal measure, which they said makes Republicans' effort more show than substance.
House Republicans, though, say they'll follow up their repeal bill with another measure designed to replace Democrats' overhaul with a new health care system.
GOP leaders have tasked four House committees with studying ways to increase the number of insured Americans and have set many of the same goals Democrats had in writing their bill: allow people to keep their existing health care insurance, provide affordable coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and control health care costs.
Each committee will target specific areas of the Democrat-crafted package that Mr. Obama signed into law in March. The panels' proposals could be melded into a single bill or taken up separately.
The House Judiciary Committee, for example, will look at ways to reduce medical malpractice lawsuits, which incoming Chairman Lamar Smith said would significantly lower overall medical costs.
Mr. Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who will go from majority leader to minority whip, said he isn't worried that Democrats will support Republicans' repeal effort, though he did say revisions to the 2009 law may be necessary.
"All of us believe we need to look at this bill, a complicated large piece of legislation, and make sure it works as effectively as we hope it will work," he said. "If we need to make changes, we'll make positive changes to it."
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