Reporting from Washington — Senate Democrats on Wednesday turned aside a bid by Republicans to repeal the new healthcare law, in the first Senate test of the sweeping overhaul that President Obama signed in March.
The 47-51 party-line vote on a procedural motion came two weeks after House Republicans pushed a repeal resolution through that chamber.
And it ended the first chapter of the GOP legislative attack on the new law, setting the stage for new battles over specific provisions of the law, including the controversial mandate that will require most Americans to get health insurance starting in 2014.
Republican leaders, who have pledged to go after the law "piece by piece," have not indicated what part of the overhaul they will target first.
With funding for the federal government set to expire in four weeks, the next battleground could be legislation to keep the government operating from March to September.
Short of shutting down the government, Republican leaders are working to peel off enough Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation taking out pillars of the healthcare law, such as the mandate or the funding needed to expand coverage to tens of millions of Americans.
Republicans are also considering proposals to allow states to opt out of parts of the law, as many GOP governors have said they want to do.
On Wednesday, the GOP repeal proposal did not win over a single Democrat, as 47 Republicans voted for it and 50 Democrats and one independent voted against it. Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut missed the vote.
Even Democrats from conservative states who face reelection in 2012 staunchly rejected a repeal, though many have said they are interested in modifying the law.
"Who wants to go backwards and tell 220,000 Nebraskans they can't have health insurance?" Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson told reporters in his home state Wednesday.
"Who wants to deny children health insurance because they have preexisting medical conditions? Who wants to see Nebraskans forced into bankruptcy, or have to choose between selling their home, or paying for medical care?"
Republican lawmakers – backed by business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Federation – said they would come up with an alternative to the law.
"We'd repeal this bill right now, and then we'd begin the work of achieving our common goal of delivering healthcare at a higher quality for lower costs," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told his colleagues on the Senate floor. "We'd put in place the common-sense reforms people actually want."
Republicans haven't yet offered an alternative, however, prompting warnings from consumer groups and patient advocates such as the American Cancer Society that Americans stand to lose new protections if the law is repealed.
The two parties agreed Wednesday to make a small change to the healthcare law to relieve businesses of a new tax reporting mandate. The provision required businesses to report purchases exceeding $600 to the Internal Revenue Service.
The Senate voted 81 to 17 to remove the widely reviled reporting requirement. The action was attached to an aviation bill being debated.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the debate raged on over the healthcare law's insurance requirement, which a federal judge in Florida ruled Monday was unconstitutional.
At a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the mandate appeared to split even Republican legal scholars.
Michael Carvin, a former Reagan administration lawyer, called the mandate an unprecedented requirement that people buy a product, a line of reasoning offered by U.S. District Judge Roger E. Vinson.
"If Congress can require this of persons, there is literally no limiting principle to the government's power," Carvin said.
Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried, who served as President Reagan's solicitor general, countered Congress' well-established authority to regulate commerce gave it the clear right to require health insurance.
"I'm not sure it's good policy. I'm not sure it's going to make the country any better," Fried said. "But I am quite sure that the healthcare mandate is constitutional."
David G. Savage in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.