WASHINGTON -- For Republicans, the Saturday vote on health care in the Senate was the first skirmish in a longer battle aimed at frustrating White House ambitions and ensuring that Democrats bear full responsibility for legislation the GOP sees as increasingly unpopular with Americans.
With the 2010 election year looming, Republicans forced Democratic leaders to demonstrate that they can pull together a 60-vote majority for the bill. All 58 Democrats and the two independents allied with the party joined together, voting to avert a Republican filibuster that threatened to stall action.
"Our goal is to let the American people know what it does for them and to them," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) said on "Fox News Sunday." Among other things, the bill would raise Medicare payroll taxes for the wealthy and cut Medicare payments to health-care providers, while expanding eligibility for Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor. "We think if the American people know that, the bill will collapse of its own weight," Mr. Alexander said.
The defeat isn't likely to cause a fundamental rethinking in Republicans' strategy of delaying the bill and pointing to what they see as its flaws. Even if a bill ultimately passes, Republicans hope to delay that moment until well into 2010 -- when all seats in the House and one-third of those in the Senate will be contested -- then make the case to voters that Democrats took their focus off the economy and an unemployment rate above 10%.
The danger for Republicans is that their delay tactics begin to look like political opportunism and they appear to obstruct a bill that contains some popular elements such as restrictions on health insurers.
In the give and take on the Senate floor, where the bill will be debated in December, Republicans hope to drive a wedge among Democrats, potentially peeling off centrists on key issues. Republicans also hope to force attention to their own proposals for changing health care, such as limiting medical-malpractice claims and enhancing the ability of small businesses to buy insurance.