LITTLE ROCK — A House panel’s decision to defeat legislation that would have rejected a key part of the federal health care overhaul managed to hand limited victories to Republicans and to Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe.

For Republicans, the vote offered an issue that they hope to use in the 2012 election and beyond as they try to build on their historic gains in the November election. For Beebe, the vote lets him maintain his careful straddle of an issue that has sunk the political fortunes of many others in his party.

Less than three months after making gains at nearly all levels in the election, Republicans couldn’t secure the symbolic victory they wanted last week when legislation barring laws requiring the purchase of health insurance failed before a House committee. 

Republicans complained about the move, saying the panel ignored voters who, they say, expressed dissatisfaction with the federal health care law in the November election. They also sent a not-so-subtle warning to Democrats that they’ll continue to use the issue in next year’s election.

"While our four congressmen took a principled stand to represent Arkansas values by recently voting to repeal the harmful law, Democrat state legislators today took a partisan vote to oppress individual liberty and freedom of choice," state Republican Party Executive Director Chase Dugger said moments after the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee rejected the proposal by Republican Rep. David Meeks of Conway.

It’s an argument Republicans are likely to echo as they look toward the 2012 election, when they hope to make further gains in a legislature controlled by Democrats since Reconstruction. And the vote may provide fodder for an argument against Democratic Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who is widely viewed as a potential candidate for governor in 2014. The legislation was defeated after McDaniel’s office argued that it would open the state up to lawsuits.

The GOP may have politics on its side, if November is any indication. The GOP picked up three of the four congressional seats in the state and defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln after repeatedly criticizing the health care overhaul. The only Democrat congressman from the state, Rep. Mike Ross, won after touting his opposition to the new law as an example of his political independence.

More than half of Arkansas voters supported repealing the health care overhaul, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press in the November general election. The remaining voters polled were split almost evenly between leaving the reform alone and expanding the health-care package, the polling showed.

Beebe, who avoided getting drawn into the debate over the health care law during his successful re-election bid, won another chance to walk a careful line.

Beebe also has said he was worried the proposal would open the state up to litigation if it passed, but stopped short of threatening a veto. 

"I support what the committee did because passing a bill to defy the federal government is unconstitutional," Beebe told reporters a day after the measure failed in committee. "It would get us in a lawsuit just like the attorney general said so I applaud what the committee did."

"Had I been on the committee, that’s how I would have voted," Beebe said.

Beebe said, however, that doesn’t mean he’s a fan of the health care overhaul. When asked about the health insurance mandate, Beebe said he agrees that uncompensated care is a major problem but says he would have drawn up the solution differently.

"There are parts of that bill that are good and there are parts of that bill that are needed," Beebe said. "There are parts of that bill I’ve got problems with, mainly related to the fiscal aspect of what’s related to our budget."

Beebe says the parts he likes includes coverage of pre-existing conditions. What he doesn’t like is the impact it’ll have on state budgets.

It’s a stance that only Beebe — a veteran of Arkansas politics who has indicated he’s unlikely to seek higher office again — can manage. 

But the fight over health care is far from over in the state Legislature, which is already considering placing heavy restrictions on insurance coverage for abortions under the health exchanges set up by the new federal law. With that fight and others, Beebe’s ability to negotiate the issue will be tested.