Eager to show who's now in charge, the House's new Republican majority plans to vote to repeal President Obama's landmark health care overhaul before he even shows up in their chamber to give his State of the Union address.
Dramatic as that early showdown promises to be -- the vote will be Jan. 12, Republicans said Monday -- it will be just the first in a series of struggles expected to play out in the next few months. Obama returns today from his holiday vacation, fresh off lame-duck legislative victories late last year, and Republicans will be sworn in Wednesday, primed to challenge him after gaining House control in last fall's elections.
Full repeal of the health care law is still a long shot. The House vote would be just the first, easiest step. But House Republicans vow they will follow up with dozens of attempts to hack away at what they derisively call "Obamacare."
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.
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.
Beyond the early health care vote, emboldened Republicans are straining to challenge the president's spending priorities, setting up likely conflicts over the budget and the country's debt ceiling. Those votes will be early tests of how the president will maneuver with a divided Congress, as both he and Republicans look ahead to the next elections.
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 are preparing other counterattacks.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said Monday he will try to force the House to vote separately on the Medicare drug benefits and other popular provisions, including one that allows adult children to stay on their parents' coverage until they turn 26. That could put Republicans in an awkward bind.
Other 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.