Bush Vetoes Health Measure

In Lancaster, Pa., Bush defended his veto but said he is open to negotiations.
In Lancaster, Pa., Bush defended his veto but said he is open to negotiations. (By Bradley C. Bower -- Bloomberg News)
By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 4, 2007

President Bush yesterday vetoed a $35 billion expansion of a popular children's health insurance program, a move that left him as politically isolated as he has ever been and had even Republican allies questioning his hard-line strategy.

Bush advisers said they remain hopeful that they can secure an extension of the 10-year-old program with a lower price tag, saying they want to open negotiations soon.

But House Democratic leaders signaled they are not yet ready to bargain. They have delayed until Oct. 18 a vote to override the veto, in hopes that a grass-roots campaign by health-policy advocates and a barrage of television and radio advertisements will win over the 15 or so Republicans they will need to overcome Bush's opposition.

The veto, only the fourth of his presidency, underscored how Bush and Congress have yet to find a way to work effectively together, nine months after Democrats took control. White House aides were quick to criticize Democrats, but even some administration allies on Capitol Hill and K Street said Bush had only himself to blame for not finding common ground on a children's health program that both sides profess to like.

"Look, I disagree with the [White House] legislative staff on all of this," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a key negotiator on the vetoed bill. "Frankly, I think the president has had pretty poor advice on this. I can answer every objection that they've made, and I'm very favorable to the president. I know he's compassionate. I know he's concerned about these kids, but he's been sold a bill of goods."

Chip Kahn, a former GOP health-care aide on Capitol Hill who heads a trade association for hospitals, said he is "befuddled by the White House approach to this legislation and can't fathom that there isn't some compromise that couldn't satisfy everyone enough to get this bill enacted."

Administration officials said that the criticism is unfair and that Democrats had not taken into account the president's concerns. Appearing before a business group in Lancaster, Pa., Bush accused his congressional opponents of trying to "federalize health care." But he said he is open to negotiations and is willing to include a "little more money" if it is aimed at enrolling more low-income children.

Administration officials said it is far too early to write off the issue. In an interview, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt recalled the example of welfare reform legislation in 1996, which was vetoed twice by President Bill Clinton before he reached an accommodation with a GOP Congress. "A bill was arrived at, it passed, and it was a very successful initiative," he said, suggesting that the same thing could happen this year.

At issue is a program that provides health insurance for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford private health insurance. The vetoed measure would expand the $5 billion-a-year program by an average of $7 billion a year over the next five years. Supporters say that would be enough to boost enrollment to 10 million, up from 6.6 million, and dramatically reduce the number of uninsured children in the country, currently about 9 million.

The current confrontation stems as much from the White House's desire to use the bill reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program to advance Bush's proposals to expand health insurance coverage through tax breaks as it does from his budgetary concerns. The idea was a major focus of the State of the Union address, and Bush and his advisers tried throughout the spring to interest lawmakers in attaching the measure to an SCHIP bill.

But the key Republicans on health-care issues, including Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking GOP member of the Finance Committee, said they found no takers for this approach. Hatch, a conservative, said he thought Bush was being unrealistic and had not come to grips with the fact that Democrats now run Congress.

"That's great if they had done all the preliminary work, but they hadn't done that at all. And to do good health-care bills, it takes years," Hatch said in an interview.

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