Steve King
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, holds a copy of the health care bill, trussed in sturdy rope, in front of the Capitol in Washington during a Republican news conference.
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updated 1/3/2011 5:15:36 PM ET 2011-01-03T22:15:36

Eager to show who's now in charge, the House's new Republican majority plans to vote to repeal President Barack Obama's landmark health care overhaul before he even shows up in their chamber to give his State of the Union address.

Republican leaders in the new House say they'll hold a vote next week to repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

The announcement of the Jan. 12 vote by the No. 2 House Republican, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, sets the stage for a showdown with the Democratic-led Senate.

Though full repeal is a longshot — the House vote would be just the first, easiest step — they'll follow up with dozens of attempts to hack away at what they derisively call "Obamacare."

First Thoughts: 10 questions for 2011

The strategy is not risk-free for the Republicans, who won't have a replacement plan of their own ready by the time of the repeal vote. But they say there's no time to lose.

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Senate Democratic leaders are sending their own "you-don't-scare-me" message.

In a letter Monday to House Speaker-to-be John Boehner, they served notice that they'll block any repeal, arguing it would kill popular provisions such as improved prescription coverage for Medicare.

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Harry Reid
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is seen in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington.

All the while, the Obama administration intends to keep putting into place the law's framework for covering more than 30 million uninsured people. Ultimately, Obama still has his veto pen, and Republicans aren't anywhere close to the two-thirds majorities they would need to override.

'Long, hard slog'
Most likely, both parties will carry the main issues of the health care debate into the 2012 presidential election, when Obama is expected to seek a second term and House and Senate control will be up for grabs again.

"It's not going to be easy; it's going to be a long, hard slog," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an early leader in the repeal drive. The quick thumbs-down vote by the House will have "tremendous utility and value," King said, but it may take electing a Republican president in Obama's place to accomplish the overall goal.

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"Repeal and replace" worked as a campaign slogan to motivate voters concerned about the growing reach of government under Obama. But a single-minded focus on repeal could backfire as a Republican governing strategy. Polls show that some parts of the law are popular, and many Americans would have wanted even bigger changes.

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Look for Republicans to try to deny money for the government to carry out the law. They'll also attempt to strip out sections of it, such as a new long-term care program. And they'll move to strengthen restrictions on funding for abortions.

It's far from clear that they'll be able to prevail in those efforts either. There's talk that an effort to deny funding could even escalate to the point of a possible government shutdown, and no one seems eager for that.

"I don't think the health issues will cause anything dire in the way of a government shutdown," said economist Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute think tank. "There are other things on the agenda besides health care, namely broader budget issues that have to be dealt with."

Possible deal on limited fixes
The two parties may be able to get a deal on some limited fixes, like repealing an income tax reporting requirement that small business is calling a paperwork nightmare.

At the White House, spokesman Reid Cherlin said Obama would have no qualms about delivering his State of the Union speech to lawmakers who've just repudiated his signature accomplishment, one that Democrats compare with the establishment of Social Security and Medicare. The president "feels pretty confident about defending the health care law," Cherlin said.

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Senate Democrats agree. In Monday's letter to Boehner, Majority Leader Reid and top lieutenants said repeal would undermine improvements already on the books, such as deep discounts on brand-name drugs for Medicare recipients who have fallen into a coverage gap called the "doughnut hole."

"This proposal deserves a chance to work," the Democratic leaders said. "It is too important to be treated as collateral damage in a partisan mission to repeal health care." The law would gradually close the coverage gap.

Democrats also are preparing counterattacks.

Supporters of the health care law have launched a "drop it or stop it" campaign, challenging Republicans who vote to repeal the overhaul to also give up the government-funded health insurance provided to members of Congress.

"These Republican members need to understand that they are going to pay a risk for taking away people's health care," said Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America NOW, a coalition of the law's supporters. "It's hypocrisy, their willingness to take health care from the U.S. Congress, while they're denying it to their constituents."

Republicans say that's nonsense: Lawmakers are only accepting the same employer-sponsored health care coverage available to other federal workers.

Key questions remain for GOP
They may be more vulnerable on another score.

The House vote will be to simply repeal the health care law. The "replace" part of the GOP slogan will be delegated to several committees, charged with developing an alternative as the year goes on. That can be a laborious process, one that produced plenty of disagreements and embarrassments for Democrats when they were in control.

It's a risk worth taking, says Rep. King. "I do not believe that you can leave any of Obamacare in the law," he said. "To pick and choose would start endless squabbles. If there are components of Obamacare that have merit, they can be reintroduced as part of a replacement process."

Finally, there's a wild card: the courts.

Challenges to the constitutionality of the health care law are working their way toward the Supreme Court. Opponents say Congress overstepped its authority by requiring most Americans to carry health insurance, effective in 2014. The case may take a couple of years, and it could change everything.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The GOP's key players going into 2012

  • Republicans are taking control of the House for the first time since 2006, while in the Senate they’ve gained six seats and can block most Democratic initiatives. Here are some of the important committee chairmen and the pivotal GOP senators who will help determine the outcome of legislative struggles with the Democrats over the next two years.

  • Rep. Spencer Bachus, chair, House Financial Services Committee

    Gary Cameron  /  Reuters

    A soft-spoken Alabaman, Bachus will have a crucial role in overseeing banking, consumer protection and securities trading. His domain will include the Federal Reserve, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as troubled government-owned mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He doesn’t have the rhetorical flash and stinging wit of his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Barney Frank, with whom he has often jousted. Bachus drew fire when he told The Birmingham News on Dec. 9 that, “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.” He later amended that comment, saying that regulators should not micromanage banks, but should set ground rules for how they operate. “Bachus' staff is going to be very busy getting him to retract statements in which he reveals what he really believes about a fundamental issue before the Committee,” Frank said.

  • Sen. Scott Brown, R- Mass.

    Hyungwon Kang  /  Reuters

    Brown’s victory in the Jan. 19, 2010 special election to fill out the unexpired term of Sen. Edward Kennedy signaled that the tide was turning against President Barack Obama and his allies in Congress. No Republican had won a Senate election in Massachusetts since 1972, when Brown was only 13 years old. Brown must run for re-election in 2012 and as a Republican senator from one of the nation’s most Democratic states, he’s a sensitive political indicator. With his vote being closely watched on every major issue, Brown voted for the Obama administration’s arms control treaty with Russia and for repealing the military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members. But he voted against the DREAM Act to grant legal residency to children of illegal immigrants, calling it "backdoor amnesty."

  • Rep. Eric Cantor, House majority leader

    Jonathan Ernst  /  Reuters

    Elected in 2000, Cantor has risen to become one of his party’s most visible spokesman and a principal tactician for House Republicans. He got started in politics as a teenager by serving as a driver for Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va. Cantor now holds the Richmond-based House seat that Bliley once held.

  • Rep. David Dreier, chair, House Rules Committee

    Harry Hamburg  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS

    One of several Californians in leadership positions in the new Republican majority, Dreier will have the job of designing the rules for each piece of legislation that comes to the House, including how many amendments the minority party can offer to bills. First elected in 1980, Dreier served as Rules Committee chairman from 1998 to 2006, when the GOP was in the majority. If process controls legislative substance, then Dreier is the one who’ll control the process.

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, chair, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

    Tim Sloan  /  AFP - Getty Images

    The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, Issa was born and raised in Cleveland and made his money in the car alarm business. He helped underwrite the recall effort against California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and spent $11 million on an unsuccessful bid to be GOP Senate candidate against Sen. Barbara Boxer in 1998. The six-term California Republican has promised to investigate vigorously alleged abuses of power by Obama administration officials. "Our committee is the committee of stopping government from taking away your liberties” and “stopping government from exceeding its authority,” he said. 

  • Sen. Jon Kyl, Senate minority whip

    Michael Reynolds  /  EPA

    Serving his third term in the Senate, after four terms in the House, Kyl is the chief GOP vote counter, figuring out members’ sentiment on bills and nominations. He’s up for re-election in 2012. The son of a former House member from Iowa, Kyl led the opposition to the Obama administration’s arms control treaty with Russia. “What we ought to be doing is focusing on Iran and North Korea and other places where maybe there is proliferation going on, and a desire to develop nuclear weapons that could potentially attack the United States,” he said.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, House majority whip

    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images

    First elected in 2006 from a safe Republican district which includes his hometown, Bakersfield, Calif., McCarthy has vaulted with impressive speed to the third-ranking position in GOP House leadership. He’ll be the first Republican from California to serve as majority whip. McCarthy learned politics from his former boss, Rep. Bill Thomas, whose seat he won when Thomas retired. McCarthy was Republican leader when he served in the California Assembly. According to the Los Angeles Times, McCarthy has “an encyclopedic knowledge about his House colleagues' idiosyncrasies and political needs” and “has pored over the profiles of lawmakers and their districts in the thick Almanac of American Politics on flights between California and Washington.”

  • Rep. Paul Ryan, chair, House Budget Committee

    Lauren Victoria Burke  /  AP

    A native of Janesville, Wisc., Budget Committee chairman Ryan has long been his party’s most articulate spokesman on spending. If Republicans really intend to cut spending, Ryan can tell them exactly where and how to do it. But Ryan’s plan for a voucher system to replace the open-ended Medicare entitlement makes some Republicans skittish. In the 2008 election, President Obama carried Ryan’s congressional district with 51 percent of the vote.

  • Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine

    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images

    Snowe is one of the decisive senators in the center whose vote often tells if a bill or amendment will pass. She is up for re-election in 2012. Obama won her state in 2008 with 58 percent of the vote. She opposed the Obama administration by voting against the DREAM Act to grant legal residency to children of illegal immigrants. She voted for the administration’s arms control treaty with Russia and for repealing the military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members.

  • Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.

    Harry Hamburg  /  AP

    South Dakota cattle rancher and ex-state legislator Kristi Noem is one of two members of the class of 2010 who’ll be part of the House GOP leadership. She defeated Democrat Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, getting 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Delivering the weekly address for her party on Dec. 11, Noem twice used the word “humble,” calling herself "part of a new majority committed to being humble, more modest ... We are committed to making sure Washington humbles itself ...” Noem was a college student when her father was killed in an accident on the family farm. “I was 22-years old, we got hit pretty hard with estate taxes at that point in time, and I really started to recognize the impact that government and taxes had on small businesses and in an agricultural state like South Dakota,” she told an interviewer.

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