Reporting from Washington — House Republicans passed a largely symbolic resolution Wednesday to repeal the nation's new healthcare law, fulfilling a top campaign promise and setting the stage for a renewed battle in the Senate.
The Senate showdown may not begin for several weeks, but promises to be substantially messier and more drawn-out than the debate just completed in the House.
The result could be a return to bitter partisan gridlock ahead of a budget confrontation in March, when the healthcare law repeal could become intertwined with a debate over federal spending.
House Republican lawmakers, who hold a commanding majority, passed their two-page repeal resolution 245 to 189 after less than two days of floor debate. Three Democrats joined all 242 Republicans in support of the repeal resolution.
The remaining Democrats, including 10 who opposed the law last year, voted against repeal. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was wounded in this month's shooting rampage in Tucson, was not able to vote.
In the Senate, Republicans will have to use contentious procedural maneuvers to pressure Democrats to vote on a repeal measure. Democrats retain a 53-47 edge in the Senate, counting two independents who caucus with them, and Democratic leaders firmly oppose repeal.
"The Democratic leadership in the Senate doesn't want to vote on this bill. But I assure you, we will," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement Wednesday after the House vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused Republicans of grandstanding. "Republicans are voting to take tax breaks away from small businesses, raise prescription drug prices for seniors and let insurance companies go back to denying coverage to sick children," he said in a statement. "… This is nothing more than partisan grandstanding at a time when we should be working together to create jobs and strengthen the middle class."
If Senate Democrats block a repeal vote, as they have vowed to do, GOP lawmakers could look for ways to force them to debate unpopular parts of the law like the insurance mandate, a move that could further inflame partisan tensions.
"It will be a procedural game of cat and mouse in the Senate to bring up repeal votes," said Michael Franc, who works closely with congressional Republicans as head of government relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "It's guerrilla tactics."
Even if the moves fall short, they are likely to play well with the GOP base. Conservative Republicans and "tea party" activists are looking to GOP senators to be as aggressive as their House counterparts in pushing repeal.
"If you throw it over to the Senate … and these senators are sitting on their hands not getting anything done … you can expect the senators to have a very unhappy first recess home," said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now leader of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports the tea party movement.
Senate Republicans are being challenged to use every rule at their disposal to engineer a showdown.
"If the supporters of a full repeal of Obamacare don't use the Senate's rules to force a vote on full repeal, don't take them seriously when they say they really want to repeal President Obama's de facto government takeover of healthcare," wrote Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, in a blog posting.
Senate rules give a single senator enormous power to stall legislation. And repeal-minded senators could threaten to filibuster even the most routine floor procedures until a vote is scheduled, including those expected next week on the rules and organization of the Senate.
Conservative GOP senators — including Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — are already preparing repeal strategies, according to aides. Some are preparing for a two-year legislative campaign. "This isn't a one-shot deal," said Coburn spokesman John Hart.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) is also among those urging a vote on repeal. Hatch is up for reelection in 2012, two years after tea party activists drove Utah's other incumbent GOP senator from office.
"House Republicans have listened to the American people by acting to repeal this law. The question is whether the White House and its allies in the Senate will follow," Hatch said in a statement.
The brass-knuckled repeal strategy is not without risk, some conservatives warn.
Independent voters, who were crucial to GOP electoral gains in November, do not want years of gridlock that produce no alternative to the current healthcare law, said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster who helped develop the Republican strategy to discredit the healthcare law in 2009.