Both sides prepare to battle over repeal of health-care law

As Congress members prepare to fight anew over the federal law overhauling the health-care system, activists on both sides of the issue are gearing up for a sequel to last year’s raucous debate.

Supporters of the law have begun planning protests, petitions and phone calls to block repeal. Its opponents are cheering efforts to dismantle the measure, which House GOP leaders have said they will put up for a vote on Jan. 12.

The strategies that are emerging could set up a grass-roots battle that rivals the shouting town halls and Capitol Hill marches that made headlines before the law was passed.

“We are holding events all across the country at district offices and elsewhere to hold the repeal mongers accountable for their votes,” said Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, which spent $53 million last year campaigning for health-care reform.

Rome’s coalition, which represents more than 1,000 groups, will begin making calls this week to both Republicans and Democrats urging them to reject repeal. We’re going to “make clear this isn’t a vote to kill some abstract law,” he said. “This is a vote to take away concrete benefits and consumer protections that people already depend on.”

On the other side of the issue, members of the tea party movement, emboldened by their successes in the 2010 midterm elections, will call their Congress members to ask them to support repeal, said Brendan Steinhauser, director of state and federal campaigns for FreedomWorks.

“This is going to happen fast in terms of the vote, and we’re going to get everything we can done,” he said. “It’s going to pass easily, and we’re going to start putting in the plan to focus on the Senate. That’s when you’ll see more rallies and protests, and then the targeting will start to come.”

Republicans in the House are expected to easily pass legislation that would repeal the health care law, though any effort to overturn the law is less likely to win the approval of the Democratically controlled Senate. Even if it did, it could be vetoed by President Obama.

Health Care for America Now organizers said they would also oppose a GOP strategy to take the bill apart piecemeal by repealing less popular parts of the law, including an individual mandate to obtain health insurance that goes into effect in 2014. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in interviews on Sunday talk shows that he plans to look at “individual pieces to see if we can’t have the thing crumble.”

Democratic leaders argued Tuesday that the most popular elements of the law, such as a ban on denying health insurance based on pre-existing conditions, would not work without the mandate. “If you’re going to have a patients’ bill of rights, you have to have comprehensive health-care reform,” outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a news conference. “Otherwise you’re just giving license to the insurance companies to cut people off.”

Both FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, which ran the boisterous “Hands Off My Health Care” campaign, are keying in on Nebraska, Virginia and Florida – states where Democratic senators will be up for reelection in 2012 and have to contend with the tea party’s growing influence.

“There’s talk that this is just a symbolic vote,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which has a membership list of 1.7 million and runs the “Hands Off” campaign. “We don’t view it that way at all. It is a genuine repeal vote. After the House vote, we’re going to pivot very quickly to the Senate. We view it kind of as a one-two punch.”

Ron Pollack of Families USA, which pushed hard for health-care reform, said supporters are ready to vigorously defend the law.

“There will be cohesiveness in protecting [the health-care act] that is very different than getting the act passed,” he said. “When you’re trying to pass legislation, each group is trying to support the legislation at the same time as it pushes its own individual priorities. Now, you are going to see literally hundreds of organizations that may have been a little fractious, very much together, working to defend the Affordable Health Care Act.”