Repeal 'Obamacare,' but don't hurt consumers, Pence says

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Donald Trump's "first order of business" as president will be to repeal and replace "Obamacare," but Republicans must avoid hurting consumers as they do it, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said at the Capitol on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama visited Congress, too, 16 days before leaving the White House, championing his landmark overhaul before Democratic lawmakers and urging them to remind voters of how the statute has helped them.

"Look out for the American people," Obama said as he left the meeting in response to shouted questions as to what he had told fellow Democrats.

"Keep up the fight," Obama told them at a strategy meeting, according to Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. "Tell the stories about the people who have benefited from it. The more you can get that message through, the better off we're going to be."

Pence spoke to reporters after an hour-long session with House Republicans. Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said GOP leaders want to get legislation dismantling the health care law to Trump for his signature by Feb. 20.

"The first order of business is to repeal and replace Obamacare," Pence said, using the overhaul's nickname. He said Americans "voted decisively for a better future for health care in this country, and we are determined to give them that."

Pence said Trump's team was already working with GOP congressional leaders on plans to undo Obama's law with both legislation and executive action the president and federal agencies would be able to take.

Pence did not specify what those actions would be. But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters they would involve "transition relief." That phrase has been used to describe help for consumers and insurers while Obama's law is being phased out and replaced with a GOP alternative, a process expected to take years.

Republicans are discussing delaying the timing for major provisions of the change to actually take effect, perhaps to 18 months or more. It is expected to take at least that long for GOP lawmakers to rally behind a plan.

Obama's and Pence's strategy sessions came on the second day of the new, GOP-led Congress. The Senate voted 51-48 Wednesday to begin debating a budget that, once approved, will prevent Democrats from using a filibuster to block future Republican legislation to scuttle the health care law.

Republicans control the Senate by 52-48, but it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, a procedural roadblock that can kill legislation. The Senate was expected to complete the budget by next week, with House approval to follow.

Minutes before Obama and Pence met with lawmakers, Trump tweeted that voters are faulting Democrats for the health care law and its rising premiums, deductibles and other problems.

"Massive increases of ObamaCare will take place this year and Dems are to blame for the mess. It will fall of its own weight -- be careful!" he wrote.

Pence told reporters that the president-elect was referring to the need to protect consumers during the transition period.

"Look, we're talking about people's lives, we're talking about families," Pence said.

Trump pledged during the presidential campaign to erase Obama's law, though he's now said he wants to retain popular provisions like ensuring coverage for people with pre-existing medical problems.

Plenty of questions remain, including the repeal bill's details, costs and when it would take effect. Republicans also face divisions over potential replacement legislation.

The budget legislation gives congressional committees until Jan. 27 -- a blink of an eye for lawmakers -- to write legislation repealing major parts of the health care law. Likely targets include the law's tax penalties for people who don't obtain insurance, its requirement that many companies cover workers and its tax increases on higher-earning individuals and many health care firms.

Aware they have no chance of quickly agreeing on replacement legislation, Republicans plan to delay when their repeal would actually take effect. A range of 18 months to three years -- perhaps longer -- has been under discussion.

Trump has provided few specifics about how he would revamp the nation's $3 trillion-a-year health care system. Steps he and congressional Republicans have mentioned include greater reliance on tax credits to help people afford coverage.

Republicans don't want to abruptly end health care coverage for millions of voters who live in GOP-represented districts and states, or cause chaos in health care markets and prompt insurance companies to stop selling policies. So they are considering including provisions in their repeal bill to protect consumers and insurers during the transition period.

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