Repealing Obamacare to be first on Senate agenda in 2017

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Repealing Obamacare will be the first order of business in the U.S. Senate in January, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said on Tuesday.

Republicans will replace President Barack Obama's signature health insurance program that provides coverage to millions of Americans "step by step," said Senator John Thune, another member of the Republican leadership.

McConnell did not say when the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, as it is officially known, would go into effect. Senator John Barrasso said it might be effective in two or three years, and that the timeframe was still being debated.

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Mitch McConnell, Obama Election 2014
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Mitch McConnell, Obama Election 2014
US President Barack Obama (2nd L) meets with Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, ( L); Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed, D-Nevada, (C); Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, (2nd R); and US Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, (R) during a bipartisan, bicameral congressional leadership luncheon at the White House in Washington, DC, November 7, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - NOVEMBER 4: Supporters react to election results as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is declared the winner by cable news during a GOP victory party at the Marriott East in Louisville, Kentucky, Tuesday November 4, 2014. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is in a tight Senate race with Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan. Grimes(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 4: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his wife Elaine Chao, address the crowd during a party for Kentucky Republicans in Louisville, Ky., November 4, 2014. McConnell defeated Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 4: U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) celebrates with supporters at the Puritan Conference Center November 4, 2014 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Shaheen beat former Massachusetts U.S. Senator Scott Brown in a tighty contested race. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
WEST DES MOINES, IOWA November 4: Newly elected Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst during their election night celebration party on November 4, 2014 in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WEST DES MOINES, IOWA November 4: Newly elected Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst during their election night celebration party on November 4, 2014 in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, AR - NOVEMBER 04: Supporters of U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and republican U.S. Senate elect in Arkansas hold signs and cheer during an election night gathering on November 4, 2014 in North Little Rock, Arkansas. U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) defeated two-term incumbent democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR). (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, AR - NOVEMBER 04: U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and republican U.S. Senate elect in Arkansas greets supporters during an election night gathering on November 4, 2014 in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Cotton defeated two-term incumbent democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR). (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 4: A voter gestures as Senate Minority Leader U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) votes in the midterm elections at Bellarmine University November 4, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky. McConnell is running in a tight race against opponent Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
FORT MYERS, FL - NOVEMEBER 4: Texas Gov. Rick Perry stops by a Republican call center to rally campaign workers November 4, 2014 in Fort Myers, Florida. Florida Gov. Rick Scott is running in a tight race against opponent and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist the Democratic challenger. (Photo by Erik Kellar/Getty Images)
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MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 4: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to the media after he casts his ballot on election day at Jefferson Elementary School, November 4, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Walker is running in a tight race against opponent Democratic candidate for Governor Mary Burke. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)
Former Florida Governor and now Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist walks out of th Total Image Hair Salon after making an election day phone bank visit to thank volunteers on November 4, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Crist is facing off against incumbent Republican Governor Rick Scott in today's election. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) takes a family photo with husband Bill, and extended family outside Madbury Town Hall after casting her vote November 4, 2014 in Madbury, New Hampshire. Incumbent Shaheen is in a tight race with former Massachusetts U.S. Senator Scott Brown. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
US Senator Mark Warner(R),D-VA, running for re-election to the Senate, speaks to reporters after casting his vote November 4, 2014 the Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria, Virginia, shortly after the polls opened for the midterm US elections. Warner is running against Republican challenger Ed Gillespie. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
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Voter Adam Hensley casts his ballot at a polling station at Fugate's Bowling Alley in Hazard, Kentucky, U.S. on Tuesday, on Nov. 4, 2014. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is trailing her opponent Republican Mitch McConnell, 41 percent to 50 percent in the Kentucky Senate race, according to an NBC/Marist poll. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 4: Gordon Reed casts his ballot to vote in precinct 28 on November 4, 2014, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Americans head to the polls to cast their vote in the mid-term elections which will ultimately decide what party controls the U.S. Senate. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)
MT KISCO, NY - NOVEMBER 04: New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo (L), and his girlfriend, television personality Sandra Lee, arrive to vote during the 2014 general election at the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco on November 4, 2014 in Mt Kisco, New York. (Photo by Kenneth Gabrielsen/Getty Images)
KENNEBUNK, ME - NOVEMBER 4: Vicki Patterson of Kennebunk leaves a voting booth at Kennebunk Town Hall on Tuesday morning, November 4, 2014. It is the first year that Kennebunk opened its polls at 6 a.m. and Town Clerk Merton Brown said that 402 voters came through the polls in the first two hours. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
SOUTH PORTLAND, ME - November 4: Scarborough voter Larry Gray proudly displays his button. (Photo by John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
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Democrats scoffed at the Republican plans, saying they do not even know what they want to replace Obamacare with.

"Bring it on," said Senator Chuck Schumer, who will be the Democrats' leader in the Senate next year.

Donald Trump's election as U.S. president last month means Republicans will control the White House, Senate and House of Representatives in 2017. The new Congress opens on Jan. 3; Trump will be sworn in on Jan. 20.

The Affordable Care Act has provided 25 million previously uninsured Americans with health coverage by expanding Medicaid and through online exchanges where consumers can receive income-based subsidies. Republicans have launched repeated legal and legislative efforts to dismantle the law, which they call a government overreach.

The average Obamacare premium is set to rise 25 percent in 2017.

Large national insurers including Aetna Inc, UnitedHealth Group Inc and Anthem Inc have said they are losing money on the exchanges because patient costs are higher than anticipated and enrollment is lower than forecast. Both UnitedHealth and Aetna have pulled out of the exchanges for 2017.

To repeal Obamacare, congressional Republicans are expected to resort to a special procedure known as budget reconciliation to get around Democrats in the Senate, where rules protect the rights of the minority party.

Thune said Republicans hoped Democrats would work with them to replace Obamacare in a way that will give states, rather than the federal government, more control over healthcare issues and create more flexibility for small businesses in the way they offer healthcare benefits.

But Senator Harry Reid, the outgoing Senate Democratic leader, dismissed the idea that Democrats would join in. "I think that any hope that we're going to buy into ruining healthcare in America, there's not a chance of it," he said.

See more issues from 2016:

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2016 issues: Health, Obamacare opinions, Medicare, Abortion
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2016 issues: Health, Obamacare opinions, Medicare, Abortion
MANHATTAN, NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES - 2015/08/22: Assembly of some 150 anti-abortion protesters behind barricade in front of Planned Parenthood. A coalition of anti-abortion protesters protested on Mott Street in Manhattan in front of Planned Parenthood. (Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MANHATTAN, NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES - 2015/08/22: Protester with Baby Doe sign in front of Planned Parenthood. A coalition of anti-abortion protesters protested on Mott Street in Manhattan in front of Planned Parenthood. (Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks at a anti-abortion rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood in front of the U.S. Capitol July 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. Planned Parenthood faces mounting criticism amid the release of videos by a pro-life group and demands to vote in the Senate to stop funding. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a Anti-abortion rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood in front of the U.S. Capitol July 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. Planned Parenthood faces mounting criticism amid the release of videos by a pro-life group and demands to vote in the Senate to stop funding. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 22: Pro-choice protesters chant in front of the Supreme Court on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, the anniversary of the Roe v Wade abortion decision. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 5: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., testifies during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on 'ObamaCare: Why the Need for an Insurance Company Bailout?' on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 25: Affordable Care Act supporters hold up signs outside the Supreme Court as they wait for the court's decision on Obamacare on Thursday, June 25, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 25 - Supporters of the Affordable Care Act celebrate as the opinion for health care is reported outside of the Supreme Court in Washington,Thursday June 25, 2015. The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the nationwide tax subsidies under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, in a ruling that preserves health insurance for millions of Americans. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
RICHMOND, CA - MARCH 31: Posters about Obamacare are posted on a window during a healthcare enrollment fair at the Bay Area Rescue Mission on March 31, 2014 in Richmond, California. SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) held the fair to help people sign up for free and low-cost health coverage through Medi-Cal or Covered California on the final day before the sign-up deadline. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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