Senate Democrats defeated a Republican effort to repeal the U.S. health-care overhaul in a test of their continuing support for the law amid court challenges and signs public support for it may be slipping.
The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 51-47 against the repeal effort in a procedural tally. Two weeks earlier, the House’s new Republican majority voted to revoke the law.
The 2010 overhaul, which would expand health-insurance coverage to another 32 million Americans, is President Barack Obama’s biggest domestic achievement. Republicans campaigned against it in last year’s elections as an unwarranted expansion of government and cite the issue as a major reason they won the House majority and picked up six Senate seats.
“It’s not every day that you can get a second chance on a big decision after you know all the facts,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on the chamber’s floor today. “This is that second chance.”
The repeal, offered by McConnell as an amendment to a bill to authorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, is likely to be the first of a series of votes on the health-care issue in coming months.
Earlier this week, a federal judge in Florida ruled the overhaul unconstitutional, saying Congress exceeded its authority by requiring people to buy health insurance. The U.S. Justice Department said it will appeal the decision. One other federal court has ruled against the law, while two have upheld it.
Democrats said they are glad to defend a law that broadens prescription drug coverage for seniors, bars insurers from dropping patients with pre-existing conditions and helps curb the soaring costs of care.
Republicans are only trying to “score political points” and have no chance of upending the law, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and a chief architect of the measure.
“There are not enough votes to defeat health-care reform - - that is a well-known fact,” Baucus said.
Immediately before the vote, senators of both parties agreed, 81-17, to remove one provision of the health law that boosts tax-reporting rules for small businesses. They are required to file a tax form with the Internal Revenue Service for any vendor with whom they have at least $600 in transactions.
The tax requirement is intended to prevent vendors from underreporting income and underpaying taxes. It is estimated to generate $1.9 billion in taxes a year, which would be used to help pay the cost of the health overhaul.
The amendment offered by Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, substitutes $40 billion in unspecified cuts to federal programs over a decade, though it would leave Social Security, defense and veterans’ programs untouched. It is similar to one offered earlier by Senator Michael Johanns, a Nebraska Republican.
The Republican Senate minority was able to bring up the repeal measure because of an agreement McConnell reached last week with Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. Republicans said they would curtail their use of delaying tactics to block Democratic legislation if Reid gave them more chances to offer amendments.
McConnell and other Republicans have hinted at other health-care amendments later. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican leader, said his party is driven partly by concern that the law’s supporters are wrong in saying it will cut the federal deficit. He said such findings are based on “budget gimmicks and deceptive accounting” built into the health measure when Democrats drafted it.
Democrats said Republicans are offering no clear alternatives to the overhaul that was enacted after decades of rising health-care costs and increasing numbers of uninsured.
“We cannot go back to a time when millions of American families stayed up at night worrying about what would happen to them and their families if they lost their jobs and their health insurance,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat.
The health-care law cleared Congress with no Republican support last year when Democrats controlled the House and Senate. It imposes new taxes on the highest wage-earners and on medical-device makers and other health care industries, and provides hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare savings.
Democrats now control the Senate 53-47, so Republicans lack the votes to push through a repeal. Even if they could, it would face a certain veto by Obama.
A Jan. 4-14 poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that negative views about the law outstripped positive ones by a larger margin than at any time since it was enacted. The percentage with negative views of the law rose to 50 percent in January from 41 percent a month earlier. The poll of 1,502 adults, with an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points, showed that 41 percent had positive views, down from 42 percent a month earlier.
Kaiser said 47 percent of those surveyed wanted to keep the health-care law as it is or expand it, while 43 percent favored repealing it altogether or repealing and replacing it with a Republican-sponsored plan.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, third-ranking Democratic leader, said he’s confident public support will grow.
“As people see the benefits and the parade of horribles fades away, the bill will become more and more popular,” he said.
Still, future votes on the health law may create political difficulties for Democrats from Republican-leaning states who are up for re-election in 2012, said John Fortier, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Those senators include Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jim Webb of Virginia.
“Some of these votes will put them in tough spots,” Fortier said.
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