To hear Senate Republicans tell it, the defeat of their attempt to repeal the Democrats’ health care overhaul was really a victory of sorts on the long the march to the 2012 congressional and presidential elections.

The repeal effort sank Wednesday along party lines, 51-47 as expected. But in the process, Republicans forced Democrats on the record in favor of President Barack Obama’s signature overhaul and launched what they described as a two-year effort to discredit it in the lead-up to a bid for a second term.

“These are the first steps in a long road that will culminate in 2012, whereby we will expose the flaws and the weaknesses in this legislation,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the party’s campaign chief.

“We think this is just the beginning,” said Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “This issue is still ahead of us.”

What’s certain is that Wednesday’s vote changed nothing about the debate that consumed Congress for two years, dominated the midterm elections and has now moved to the courts.

Two federal judges have ruled the law is unconstitutional, partially or in its entirety, citing a requirement for individuals to purchase coverage and pay a penalty in taxes if they fail to do so. Two other judges have upheld the law.

The controversy is all but certain to be settled by the Supreme Court. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., announced he would file legislation urging the justices to act quickly.

In spite of the maneuvering and the side-taking, senators overwhelmingly voted to cancel the law’s requirement that businesses, charities and state and local governments file income tax forms for every vendor that sells them more than $600 in goods. That repeal was approved 81-17 after Republicans pointed out it had originally been their idea. Obama said he would accept the change.

Acutely aware that they’ll be defending 23 seats in the next election, Democrats sought to shrug off the GOP’s efforts. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said earlier in the week he hoped the vote would help Republicans get it out of their systems, called on them to “set aside the battles of the past.”

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