Republicans in the House of Representatives unanimously backed a proposal to repeal the Obama administration’s landmark healthcare legislation, fulfilling a campaign promise that fuelled the party’s election victory in November.
The 245-189 vote, in which three Democrats joined Republicans to vote to repeal the law, represented nothing more than a symbolic gesture in the debate over healthcare. The legislation does not have the votes to pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate and would face a veto by President Barack Obama in the unlikely event that it passed both houses of Congress.
But the vote to repeal healthcare nevertheless marks an important first step toward Republicans’ longer term goal of trying to stymie the healthcare overhaul by seeking to cancel funding for the reform.
It also offers the White House an opportunity to contrast its position with the Republicans’ even as it has vowed to work more closely with its political opponents.
The vote could have important political ramifications ahead of the 2012 election if popular opinion, which is now evenly divided on the law, shifts strongly behind or against the bill.
While Republican lawmakers centred their debate on the economic impact of the bill, which they claimed would place an undue burden on small businesses and destroy jobs, Democrats emphasised consumer protections that bar insurance providers from discriminating against patients with pre-existing conditions and allow parents to keep children under the age of 26 on their insurance plans.
Democrats also pointed to a preliminary report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that found that repealing the healthcare bill would increase the federal budget deficit by $145bn by 2019. Republicans disputed that figure.
They have promised to offer their own alternative to the healthcare legislation, which would include the consumer protections but strip out a mandate that forces Americans who can afford it to buy healthcare and offers financial assistance to those who cannot. Republican leaders, who have not offered any concrete proposals to replace the legislation, promised to unveil plans for “meaningful reform” at a press conference on Thursday.
The US Chamber of Commerce, the big business lobby group, praised the vote, saying that the healthcare law failed to lower the cost of care and discouraged job growth.
Mr Obama said in a statement ahead of the vote that while he was “willing and eager” to work with lawmakers to improve the bill, Americans deserved to know that insurance companies could not deny or drop health coverage when they needed it most.
“We can’t go backward,” Mr Obama said.
Kathleen Sebelius, the health secretary, said repeal of the law would put control of healthcare back in the hands of insurance companies. “ I want the people who are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act – including families, seniors, and small business owners – to know that this vote does not change the law and that this department will continue to work every day to implement this vital law.”