Washington (AP) - On a day rich in political theater, Senate Republicans pushed for repeal of the year-old health care law on Wednesday, certain of defeat yet eager to force rank-and-file Democrats to take a stand on an issue steeped in controversy.
The showdown approached as lawmakers in both parties agreed the law's fate rests with the Supreme Court, not Congress.
Even so, 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 a proposed repeal of a relatively small part of the bill not directly connected to health care. It requires all businesses, charities, and state and local governments to file income tax forms every time they purchase $600 or more in goods, and has become a magnet for critics of the legislation.
Obama has already said he is willing to strip the requirement from the law.
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
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.
The bill's critics argue the law gave government too large a role in the health care system, will harm Medicare and raises taxes and fees that will burden the economy. They also sharply dispute the CBO estimate that deficits will fall once the bill takes effect, arguing that the forecasts rest on spending cuts to Medicare and other programs that will not materialize.
Either way, the day's events shaped up as the latest maneuvering in a struggle that has spanned more than two years.
Republicans said a proposal by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to eliminate the reporting requirement to the Internal Revenue Service was legislative pilferage, noting that Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., filed a bill to that effect last year.
The measure calls for $44 billion in spending cuts to offset the revenue loss from the change, but unlike Johanns' earlier measure, Stabenow's specifies that none of the funds can come from Social Security.
Under federal law, Social Security benefits are generally guaranteed. As a result, the provision Stabenow advanced assures merely that no administrative costs can be cut at the agency.
No similar protection was included for the agency that oversees Medicare.
The House approved legislation repealing the health care law last month on a party-line vote, ignoring a veto threat from Obama and Reid's blunt statement the bill would never see the light of day in the Senate. McConnell responded quickly that he would look for an opportunity to force a vote.
The law that passed a year ago had the support of 58 Democrats and two independents aligned with them. All 40 Republicans voted against it.
Democratic ranks have been thinned since then, and their current majority is 53-47.
Of those 53 seats, 23 are on the ballot in 2012, including several that Republicans are targeting. One on the list, Sen. Ben Nelson of
"There are a lot of good parts in the bill and some that I will work to improve," Nelson told reporters in his home state. "The repealers already have health care. But they're ready, willing and eager to take it away from hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans."
At the same time, Nelson has said he favors replacing the individual mandate and accompanying penalties if a viable alternative can be found.
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.