By Christopher Lee and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 21, 2007
Republicans reacted angrily yesterday to President Bush's promise to veto a bill that would renew and expand the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, raising the likelihood of significant GOP defections when the package comes to a vote next week.
"I'm disappointed by the president's comments," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who urged Bush, in an early-morning telephone conversation yesterday, to support the emerging bipartisan compromise. "Drawing lines in the sand at this stage isn't constructive. . . . I wish he would engage Congress in a bill that he could sign instead of threatening a veto."
"I'm very, very disappointed," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). "I'm going to be voting for it."
With the program about to expire on Sept. 30, Bush said in a news conference that he will reject the $35 billion funding expansion being cobbled together by House and Senate negotiators. He said the bill would inappropriately extend coverage to children in families with incomes of as much as $83,000 a year, prompting many parents to drop private insurance. He urged Congress to pass, instead, a temporary extension of the program until a more lasting compromise can be worked out.
"Members of Congress are putting health coverage for poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington," Bush said. He added later that "health coverage for these children should not be held hostage while political ads are being made and new polls are being taken."
But members of both parties countered that it is the president who is putting children's health in jeopardy. They said most Americans, including many GOP governors and groups such as AARP, support the expansion of the program's enrollment to about 10 million children from 6.6 million now.
Some Republicans could face considerable pressure to defy the president when the measure comes to a vote. Lawmakers are confident of veto-proof passage in the Senate, but getting the required 290 votes in the House appears to be a long shot.
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said he is trying to get 20 to 30 House Republicans to vote for the compromise -- enough, he hopes, to persuade Bush to reconsider.
"I'm optimistic we can get a significant number of Republicans," LaHood said. "It'll be a good vote for them. They can go back home and try to assuage the feelings of their constituents who have heartburn about their views on the war or other things. And it shows that, if they feel strongly about something, they are willing to stand up to the president and tell him."
Asked whether he would vote to override a veto, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a staunch conservative, said, "You bet your sweet bippy I will."
Hatch, who helped negotiate the compromise, said it is flatly untrue that the bill would cover children in households with incomes of as much as $83,000. A recent Urban Institute analysis found that 70 percent of the children who would gain or retain coverage under the Senate bill, which resembles the compromise, are in households with incomes below twice the poverty level, or $41,300 for a family of four.
"We're talking about kids who basically don't have coverage," Hatch said. "I think the president's had some pretty bad advice on this."
The decade-old program, which now costs about $5 billion a year, targets children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy insurance on their own. Studies credit it with reducing the number of uninsured children by millions since 1997, although that number has begun creeping up again. About 9 million children did not have health insurance last year, according to the most recent census figures.
The emerging compromise would boost the program's total funding to $60 billion over the next five years, with the expansion to be funded by a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes, to $1 a pack. The original House version, now abandoned, called for total funding of $75 billion over five years. Bush has proposed total funding of $30 billion over five years, an amount the Congressional Budget Office has said is insufficient to continue covering the children who are already in the program.
"The president may be willing to cut off health care for low-income kids, but here in Congress we are not," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and one of the lead negotiators.
The White House contends that the president is trying rein in a program that has strayed from its original mission. Since 2001, the administration has granted several states permission to expand eligibility by raising their income ceilings to as high as $72,225 for a family of four and allowing about 600,000 adults to enroll. But many low-income children are still not enrolled, and now the White House wants states to focus on them, an effort administration strategists think will win Bush support among fiscal conservatives and free-market purists.
"We would like to put poor children at the head of the line," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said yesterday.
Democrats say poor kids remain the priority.
"The president is wrong when he says Democrats want a political victory," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "What we want is a bipartisan bill. What we want is health care for 10 million children."
House Republican leaders said it will take more time. More than 100 GOP lawmakers introduced a bill to extend the existing program for 18 months, with $6.5 billion in funding for fiscal 2008.
"Time is running out for the SCHIP program, and yet the majority seems intent on putting politics before the needs of low-income children," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.