A Bill That Everyone Can Love -- or Else

Gemma Frost, 9, with her mother, Bonnie: Democrats get personal in promoting SCHIP bill.
Gemma Frost, 9, with her mother, Bonnie: Democrats get personal in promoting SCHIP bill. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A t the tender age of 9, Gemma Frost has become a human shield.

A third-grader from Baltimore who survived brain injuries from a car accident, she stood in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol yesterday with a phalanx of Democratic House leaders as they delivered a threat to President Bush: Veto the children's health bill, and the kid gets hurt.

"This Democratic Congress is working to make a real difference in the lives of the Gemmas of America," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer declared, as Gemma stood in front of her mother smiling sweetly and bearing a scar on her forehead. "There's nothing more important than the health care of you and your fellow children."

Turning from the 9-year-old to address the 61-year-old in the White House, Hoyer continued. "We ask you on behalf of Gemma. . . . Change your mind for Gemma," he urged. "Sign this bill, Mr. President."

As a matter of policy, Democrats -- who passed the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill in the House last night with 45 Republican votes -- will have a difficult time getting the two-thirds majority needed to implement their program over Bush's veto. But as a political matter, the president has handed Democrats a generous gift by objecting to an expanded SCHIP.

Gleeful Democrats went to the House floor to taunt Republicans before yesterday's vote. "The president is giving new meaning to the words 'Suffer little children,' " House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) proclaimed, dubbing the body "the Children's Congress."

"What's your decision?" Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) asked in a make-my-day challenge. "It's either you're gonna help the kids, or you're not."

Republicans seemed to know they had a problem. Endangered Rep. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.), facing her fellow Republicans on the floor yesterday, pleaded: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Most of the Republicans who opposed the bill -- which would spend $35 billion to give health insurance to 4 million more low-income children -- did so gingerly, calling it a "proxy fight" over socialized medicine. "The most that can be said for it is that it does have money in it for the children of America," grumbled Rep. Joe Barton (Tex.).

It was not clear why he thought this helped his case.

Lawmakers on both sides know that a piece of legislation stands a much better chance of passage if it's about kids. This year alone, there have been hundreds of such bills, among them: the Kids Come First Act, the Protect Our Children First Act, the Prepare All Kids Act, the Early Childhood Investment Act, the Play Every Day Act, the Safe Babies Act, the Children's Dental Health Improvement Act, and the Early Detection of Dyslexia in Children Act.

Few, however, have the popularity of the SCHIP program, and the Democratic efforts to expand it have the support of a bipartisan majority of the nation's governors and perhaps a sizable minority of Republicans. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) pronounced himself "disappointed" by Bush's veto threat, and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) judged that "the president's had some pretty bad advice on this."

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