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Senate takes first step toward repealing Obamacare

WASHINGTON -- The Senate took the first step toward repealing Obamacare early on Thursday morning, passing a budget bill that would clear the way for legislation to gut the health care law in the weeks ahead.

It came after seven hours of back-to-back, party-line votes on an array of non-binding health care provisions, part of a byzantine ritual known as “vote-a-rama.”

Ultimately, the final vote was 51-48, just enough for the measure to squeak through the chamber. The legislation now goes to the House, which is expected to cast its vote as soon as Friday.

Both Georgia senators, Republicans Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, voted in favor of the bill.

The measure the Senate passed does not repeal the Affordable Care Act on its own -- technically speaking, it's a budget with numbers that are effectively moot -- but it does begin to pave a path forward for a Republican party hellbent on replacing Barack Obama’s signature policy achievement but divided on the details.

The budget the Senate just passed is important because it tells four committees – two in the House and two in the Senate – to begin writing legislation that collectively will gut Obamacare. Those committees have until January 27 to do that.

The reason why Republican leaders chose to use the arcane budget process to repeal Obamacare is because it unlocks a special procedure that allows them to act with only 51 votes in the Senate, instead of the usual 60. That’s critical math since there are currently 52 Republican senators, but that also means that leaders can afford to lose only two votes before their dream of repealing and replacing Obamacare is derailed.

Repeal and delay?

The Republican divisions start with whether to wait to repeal the law until there's a replacement ready.

Isakson said in a speech Wednesday that it is "unsustainable and impractical and it's wrong for us to say we're going to repeal Obamacare without replacing it with a plan that we know works and has the opportunity."

"As we talk about repealing we must also end up landing on a replacement," Isakson said.

Perdue, meanwhile, is supportive of repealing now, even if a replacement isn't immediately available.

"I know what's happening right now behind the scenes, and that's an active conversation about the replacement pieces," Perdue said in an interview.

Meanwhile, President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday told reporters he wanted a vote to replace in quick succession after repeal.

“We're going to be submitting as soon as our secretary is approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan,” Trump said in during a press conference in New York. “It will be repeal and replace. It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably the same day. Could be the same hour.”

While there's Republican unity over broad principles that Obamacare isn't working and that a GOP alternative won't have mandates that force people or companies into things they don't want to do, there isn't a single replacement plan they're coalescing around yet.

Democrats said they aren't willing to aid the repeal effort, although some moderates have indicated they could help negotiate a replacement.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, on Wednesday urged Republicans not to pass the repeal and instead work with Democrats on a plan that “doesn’t move our health care system backward.”

“Turn back before it’s too late because you’ll regret going forward,” the Senate Minority Leader said.

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.