WASHINGTON – Turned away at the Supreme Court, congressional Republicans sketched a strategy Friday to repeal the nation's health care law in 2013 that requires a sweeping election victory carrying Mitt Romney to the presidency and the party at least to narrow control of the Senate.
Romney sought to turn the court's decision upholding the two-year-old law into a campaign battle cry, saying the 5-4 ruling had injected "greater urgency" into his challenge to President Barack Obama. "I think many people assumed that the Supreme Court would do the work that was necessary in repealing Obamacare," he said, adding that the justices "did not get that job done."
Several Republicans seized on a portion of Chief Justice John Roberts' majority opinion that said the centerpiece of the law, a requirement to purchase insurance, was constitutional because it is based on Congress' power to impose a tax. "Those who will end up paying the heaviest burden for not buying government-mandated insurance won't be the wealthiest Americans, but the very middle class families the president claims to defend," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The White House said that was an argument it was happy to have. Presidential press secretary Jay Carney said Obama has signed legislation cutting middle class taxes repeatedly, that Republicans want to extend existing income tax cuts for the wealthy and then add "another $5 trillion...that would disproportionately benefit" the same group.
At the same time, the administration announced the latest in a series to steps to implement a law that already has curbed insurance company abuses and cut costs for seniors with high prescription drug costs. Officials said another round of financing was available for states to set up health insurance exchanges, the one-stop markets for consumers scheduled to open in 2014.
Polls find Obama and Romney in a close race four months before the election, with the economy the nation's overriding issue. The battle for control of the Senate is also uncertain, and one day after the court's ruling, the principal fallout was political.
Romney, Obama and congressional candidates in both parties raised campaign money from the ruling, in which Roberts unexpectedly joined four more liberal justices to uphold the law's core component — a requirement that nearly all Americans purchase health insurance beginning in 2014.
The Republican-controlled House is planning to vote in a little more than a week to repeal the law. But that is a symbolic vote, designed to show faith with opponents of what the GOP scornfully calls "Obamacare." Party officials also hope to force some Democrats into a difficult vote on legislation that has never been popular with the public. The repeal measure is doomed in the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority.
Recognizing as much, Republicans were turning their attention to 2013 as their next realistic opportunity to erase legislation that they say gives government control of health at the same time it raises taxes, cuts Medicare and swells deficits.
"One thing is clear: we need the majority in the Senate," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wrote in a fundraising email to supporters. "Every path to repeal depends on it."
A 60-vote majority is normally required to overcome adamant opposition to legislation in the Senate, but under limited circumstances, a mere majority can suffice. Democrats took advantage of that when they pushed the health care law to passage in 2010 when they controlled 59 seats. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told reporters, "I think with a ... majority in the Senate, Republicans could do the same things."
The GOP currently has 47 seats in the 100-member Senate, and needs to gain three for effective control if Romney wins the presidential election. Any repeal scenario also assumes the Republicans maintain their House majority in the fall.
A little more than 24 hours after the ruling, Obama, Romney and congressional leaders quickly adjusted.
One effect of the decision was to make Romney's election essential for tea party-aligned voters who fought his nomination in winter and spring but now need him in the White House if there is to be any real hope of repeal.
In a fundraising pitch, the Tea Party Patriots addressed both Romney and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio., asserting "the American people are putting you on notice. We will not rest until this law is overturned."
The court's decision also injected the health care issue into congressional races.
Crossroads GPS, an independent group aligned with Republicans, introduced an ad in North Dakota noting that Democratic senatorial candidate Heidi Heitkamp "endorsed Obamacare." The commercial says the law raises taxes, cuts Medicare and gives federal bureaucrats "the power to restrict seniors' care." It encourages viewers to lobby her to swing behind the repeal effort.
Heitkamp's opponent, Republican Rep. Rick Berg, favors repealing the legislation. A spokesman said he supports "the concepts" behind provisions to guarantee coverage for pre-existing conditions, reduce prescription drug expenses for seniors and raise federal payments in North Dakota and other rural states for doctors and other Medicare health care providers, "but not as part of a $1.7 billion government takeover."
The spokesman, Chris Pack, said he didn't have any information on how those features could be left in place between the time the current law was repealed and a new one was enacted.
It's a question Democrats raised repeatedly in recent days as they tried to position themselves politically for an anticipated defeat at the Supreme Court that didn't come.
Republican candidates ran on a slogan of "'repeal and replace" in 2010, when they won control of the House and gained seats in the Senate. But they have yet to outline details for replacement legislation, and even before the court's ruling, GOP officials said they had no plans to do so until after the election or perhaps 2013. Nor has Romney detailed what he would like to see included in a substitute law.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this story