WASHINGTON -- Both parties scrambled to seize what advantage they could after Thursday's Supreme Court decision upholding the health care law, with Republicans on Capitol Hill signaling they're set to make 2012 just like 2010 and Democrats vowing to move forward.
Republicans immediately zeroed in on the high court's description of the individual mandate as a tax and began hammering away on their oft-repeated refrain that the law must be repealed -- a vow made by nearly all leading members of the GOP soon after the ruling.
Democrats declared victory -- some cautiously -- and pointed to the popular parts of the law, while also arguing that it was time to look ahead and focus on the economy and jobs.
Reflecting that sense of relief and vindication, the Democrats were the first to make public statements on the ruling. They immediately started pushing the forward-looking message that they hope will win this year's elections.
"I'm pleased the Supreme Court put the rule of law ahead of partisanship," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who had strolled over to the Senate floor from his offices with a smile on his face.
"Today, millions of Americans are already seeing the benefits of the law that we passed," Reid said, before taking a shot at the GOP. "Republicans in Congress continue to target the rights and benefits guaranteed under this law. [They'd] like to give power back to the insurance companies, the power of life and death back to the insurance companies."
He said it would be better to deal with the lingering effects of the recession. "Our first priority must be to improve the economy," Reid said, adding that it's time for "Republicans to stop refighting yesterday's battles. Now that the matter is settled, let's move on to other things, like jobs."
Democratic aides, who spoke on background to discuss strategy, confirmed what Reid's words signaled. "I think the GOP loses if they persist with the repeal argument. Voters are fatigued with this issue," one senior staffer said.
Another added, "We go to focusing on jobs. The matter is settled. You don't have to go home but you can't stay here."
The sense of relief on the Democrats' side was almost palpable. "If this went the other way, my day was going to suck," said one Senate office strategist.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) delayed his planned trip to the microphones, suggesting the difficulty the GOP was having in solidifying its response. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) carried the load instead, speaking even before his party's presumed presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
McConnell seized on the Supreme Court's finding that the individual mandate is constitutional as a tax -- a description of that key provision that Democrats often denied, including President Barack Obama.
"This was one of the Democrats' top selling points because they knew it would never have passed if they said it was a tax," McConnell said. "Well, the Supreme Court has spoken: The law is a tax."
McConnell argued that the Affordable Care Act has not helped people and has only made things worse. Therefore, the GOP would try again to repeal it.
"I can assure you of this: The Republicans won't let up whatsoever in our determination to repeal this terrible law and replace it with the kinds of reforms that will truly address the problems it was meant to solve," said McConnell.
Painting the Supreme Court's decision as ultimately unimportant, he said, "Look, we've passed plenty of terrible laws around here that the court finds constitutional. Constitutionality was never an argument to keep this law."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) went so far as to set a vote for July 11 to repeal the law, although the House has already held a number of such votes that were not followed by the Senate, and it was unclear what might be different this time. He also laid out the GOP's election-year argument.
"The Court's decision brings into focus the choice the American people have about the direction of our country," Cantor said in a statement. "The President and his party believe in massive government intrusions that increase costs and take decisions away from patients. In contrast, Republicans believe in patient-centered, affordable care where health care decisions are made by patients, their families and their doctors, not by the federal government."
Many GOP insiders -- who had been warned by Boehner not to "spike the ball" after what they hoped would be a win -- were disappointed by the ruling, but nevertheless looked for silver linings. "I have a feeling that about as many Dems will run on this as in 2010," said one senior staffer, predicting that focusing on the economy would also not help the party that holds the White House. "I would love for them to talk about their record on jobs."
It is likely the Democrats will, but in the context of portraying Republicans as stuck in the past and frustrated at being on the wrong side of history.
"Just as Speaker Boehner vowed not to spike the football if the law was overturned, Republicans should not carry on out of pique now that the law has been upheld," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Democrats' lead policy maven. "Democrats remain willing to cooperate on potential improvements to the law, but now that all three branches of government have ratified this law, the time for quarreling over its validity is over."
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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