WASHINGTON — A Republican drive to repeal the year-old health care law ended in party-line defeat in the Senate on Wednesday, leaving the Supreme Court to render a final, unpredictable verdict on an issue steeped in political and constitutional controversy. The vote was 47-51. Moments earlier, the Senate agreed to make one relatively minor change in the law, voting to strip out a paperwork requirement for businesses.
President Barack Obama, who has vowed to veto any total repeal of his signature legislative accomplishment, has said he would accept the change. It does not directly affect health care.
Republicans conceded in advance their attempt at total repeal would fall short, but they accomplished an objective of forcing rank and file Democrats to take a position on an issue that reverberated in the 2010 campaign and may play a role in 2012.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the vote marked an opportunity for Democrats who voted for the bill last year "to listen to those who have desperately been trying to get your attention."
"To say, yes, maybe my vote for this bill was a mistake, and that we can do better," McConnell said.
Democrats worked to minimize any political repercussions, a concern for a party already acutely aware it must defend 22 seats — and its shrunken Senate majority — in the 2012 elections.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Republican repeal movement would "take away a child's right to get health insurance and instead give insurance companies the right to use asthma or diabetes as an excuse to take away that care."
"It would kick kids off their parents' health insurance," Reid said. "It would take away seniors' rights to a free wellness check."
Democrats also countered with the proposed repeal of the law's requirement that businesses, charities, and state and local governments file income tax forms every time they purchase $600 or more in goods.
It was approved 81-17, after Republicans said it had originally been their idea.
Across the street from the Capitol, Democrats convened a Judiciary Committee hearing to solicit testimony on the constitutionality of the law they passed and Obama signed months ago.
"Many who argue the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional are the same people who condemn judicial activism," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who presided. "They are pushing the Supreme Court to strike down this law because they could not defeat it in Congress."
Republicans were scathing in response.
"The sensible process would have been to have . held a hearing on the law's constitutionality before the bill passed, not after," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. "Like Alice in Wonderland, sentence first, verdict afterward."
Two federal judges have ruled the law it is unconstitutional, partially or in its entirety, citing a requirement for individuals to purchase coverage and pay a penalty in taxes if they fail to do so. Two other judges have upheld the law.
The controversy has yet to reach the Supreme Court, but it is widely expected to, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., announced he would file legislation urging the justices to act quickly.
The maneuvering occurred around a law as ambitious as any in recent years, and as controversial. According to the Congressional Budget Office, it would expand coverage to tens of millions who lack it, crack down on insurance industry abuses and cut federal budget deficits. At its core, the bill would require most Americans to purchase insurance, a so-called individual mandate that has become one of the principal points of opposition among Republicans and the tea party activists who propelled them to gains last fall.
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