GOP Senator Says Bush Should Put Health Bill Before Policy Goal

By Jonathan Weisman and Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A senior Senate Republican accused President Bush yesterday of holding a bipartisan expansion of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program hostage to his broader policy goals of using tax deductions to help people afford private health insurance coverage.

With a five-year, $35 billion expansion of the children's health insurance program due for a final vote in the House today, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and White House aides agreed that Bush's opposition to the legislation stems not from its price tag but from far larger health policy issues. The White House wants to use the issue of uninsured children to resurrect the president's long-dormant proposals to change the federal tax code to help the uninsured, adults and children alike, Grassley said, calling that a laudable goal but unrealistic politically.

"The president has a goal that I share, that we need to take care of the uninsured through private health insurance," said Grassley, relating a sharp conversation he had with Bush on Thursday morning. "But you can't put that on this bill."

"It's bad policy," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said of the children's health bill. "Why should we go along with bad policy if we've got something better?"

A day before the House vote, lobbying on Capitol Hill was in high gear. A broad coalition -- including liberal health policy advocates and their usual foes, the health insurance lobby -- endorsed the SCHIP bill, urging House Republicans to get on board and the president to sign it. The bill appears to have at least 69 votes in the Senate, a bipartisan, veto-proof majority, so White House lobbying has focused on House Republicans.

Reps. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.) and Ray LaHood (Ill.) released a letter to fellow Republicans yesterday, urging them to vote for the bill.

Perhaps two dozen or more House Republicans are likely to vote for the bill today, GOP leadership aides said, far more than the five who voted for a more ambitious House version on Aug. 1, which included cuts in subsidies for private Medicare plans. But that would still be well short of the 60 or so that would be needed to override Bush's threatened veto.

"That's not going to happen," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

White House lobbying has targeted the bill's price tag and the mechanism that the bill uses to pay for itself, a 61-cent increase in the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes. Grassley said he was surprised to hear Bush bring up his broader health policy goals.

In talks this spring with Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, White House National Economic Council Director Al Hubbard and Hubbard's deputy, Keith Hennessey, Grassley discussed linking an extension of the 10-year-old SCHIP program to a more ambitious effort to address the adult uninsured. Grassley encouraged the White House to try to round up Democratic support for that approach, but when White House officials made no such effort, Grassley told them in April that the children's health program would have to stand alone.

That is why he said he was surprised when Bush brought it back up in a phone call Thursday, just minutes before the president went before microphones at the White House to blast the SCHIP deal.

Asked if Bush was holding the children's health bill hostage, Grassley said, "Yes."

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