- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Eager to show who’s in charge, the House’s new Republican majority plans to vote to repeal President Obama’s landmark health care overhaul before he even shows up in their chamber to give his State of the Union address later this month.

Though full repeal is a long shot — the House vote would be just the first, easiest step — Republicans vow to follow up with dozens of attempts to hack away at what they derisively call “Obamacare.”

The strategy is not risk-free for the Republicans, who won’t have a replacement plan of their own ready by the time of the repeal vote. But they say there’s no time to lose.

Senate Democratic leaders are sending their own “you-don’t-scare-me” message. In a letter Monday to House GOP Speaker-to-be John Boehner, they served notice that they’ll block any repeal, arguing it would kill popular provisions such as improved prescription coverage for Medicare.

All the while, the Obama administration intends to keep putting into place the law’s framework for covering more than 30 million uninsured people. Ultimately, Mr. Obama still has his veto pen, and Republicans aren’t anywhere close to the two-thirds majorities they would need to override a presidential veto.

Most likely, both parties will carry the main issues of the health care debate into the 2012 presidential election, when Mr. Obama is expected to seek a second term and House and Senate control will be up for grabs again.

“It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be a long, hard slog,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican and an early leader in the repeal drive. The quick thumbs-down vote by the House will have “tremendous utility and value,” Mr. King said, but it may take electing a Republican president in Mr. Obama’s place to accomplish the overall goal.

“Repeal and replace” worked as a campaign slogan to motivate voters concerned about the growing reach of government under the Democratic president. But a single-minded focus on repeal could backfire as a Republican governing strategy. Polls show that some parts of the law are popular, and many Americans would have wanted even bigger changes.

Look for Republicans to try to deny money for the government to carry out the law. They’ll also attempt to strip out sections of it, such as a new long-term-care program. And they’ll move to strengthen restrictions on funding for abortions.

It’s far from clear that they’ll be able to prevail in those efforts either. There’s talk that an effort to deny funding could even escalate to the point of a possible government shutdown, and no one seems eager for that.

“I don’t think the health issues will cause anything dire in the way of a government shutdown,” said economist Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute think tank. “There are other things on the agenda besides health care, namely broader budget issues, that have to be dealt with.”

At the White House, spokesman Reid Cherlin said Mr. Obama would have no qualms about delivering his State of the Union speech to lawmakers who’ve just repudiated his signature accomplishment, one that Democrats compare with the establishment of Social Security and Medicare. The president “feels pretty confident about defending the health care law,” Mr. Cherlin said.

Senate Democrats agree. In Monday’s letter to Mr. Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and top lieutenants said repeal would undermine improvements already on the books, such as deep discounts on brand-name drugs for Medicare recipients who have fallen into a coverage gap called the “doughnut hole.”

“This proposal deserves a chance to work,” the Democratic leaders said. “It is too important to be treated as collateral damage in a partisan mission to repeal health care.”

There’s a legal wild card as well: the courts. Challenges to the constitutionality of the health care law are working their way toward the Supreme Court. Opponents say Congress overstepped its authority by requiring most Americans to carry health insurance, effective in 2014. The case may take a couple of years, and it could change everything.

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