Democrats Press Ahead on SCHIP

By Jonathan Weisman and Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 19, 2007

A failed veto override on a major children's health insurance program yesterday prompted House Democratic leaders to promise to push a new version of the bill, daring Republicans to oppose them.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the new proposal will contain only minor changes. Just before the vote, she had declared: "This is a banner issue for the Congress of the United States."

"The president is isolated in this. Don't join him in his isolation," she said while supporters of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) expansion packed the House galleries, bringing in children and parents to apply last-minute pressure on Republicans to change their votes. "Come forward on behalf of the children."

Ultimately, the president's demand for a far more limited extension of the existing program held sway with enough Republicans. After the vote, a subdued GOP quickly talked of compromise. "Americans are tired of the rhetoric," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio). "They're tired of the political games, and they want us to find a way to work together."

To override Bush's veto, the House needed two-thirds of those voting to support the bill. The measure attracted 273 votes, including 44 from Republicans, and was opposed by 156, just two of them from Democrats.

The showdown over the health bill has underscored just how strained relations are between Bush and Congress. Recent presidents have turned to Congresses controlled by their opponents to burnish their historical accomplishments. Bill Clinton angered congressional Democrats when he reached a broad balanced-budget agreement and signed a welfare reform law. Bush's father approved the Americans With Disabilities Act. Ronald Reagan reached an accord with Democrats on an overhaul of the tax code.

But when Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) suggested that Bush join bipartisan efforts at universal health insurance, his aides balked. Earlier this month, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) met with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. to propose a deal: Rangel, a liberal Democrat, would push Bush's proposed cut in the corporate income tax rate if Paulsen helped craft a full repeal of the alternative minimum tax. Paulson said no.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said discussions on those larger issues are ongoing, but he added: "This president isn't going to accept bad policy just to chalk something up. That's not the way he operates."

The vetoed bill would have expanded the $5 billion-a-year program by an average of $7 billion a year over the next five years, for total funding of $60 billion over that period. That would have been enough to boost enrollment to 10 million children, up from 6.6 million, and to dramatically reduce the number of uninsured children in the country, currently about 9 million, supporters say.

While Pelosi is willing to talk to Bush, she stressed that Democrats will accept nothing less than an expansion to 10 million children. "That's not negotiable," she said.

The new version will probably give Republicans some face-saving alterations but no substantive change. Democratic leaders suggested that they could add language clarifying that the program would not cover families with incomes above 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about an annual income of about $60,000 for a family of four. And they would tighten language to ensure that the children of illegal immigrants would not receive benefits.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush may be willing to go beyond his initial $5 billion expansion over five years.

"If in the negotiations there is a desire and there is a belief and evidence that we need to have more money put towards that goal of covering those 500,000 children that we know right now who are eligible for SCHIP but who haven't been found to be able to get on the program, he's willing to go to a higher number," Perino said.

Republicans sent signals that minor changes may be all that will be needed, if not for the president's signature, then for the votes of balking House members. Rep. Joe L. Barton (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the emphasis should be strictly on covering low-income children.

"We don't think illegal aliens should be covered, and we don't think that over time adults should be covered," Barton said. "There are some states that cover more adults than children."

Four moderate Republicans sent Pelosi a letter outlining what they thought could win passage, including a cap at 300 percent of the poverty level, a phasing out of eligibility for some adults and an expressed prohibition on covering illegal immigrants. "The modifications needed are relatively modest," said Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.).

Republicans will not relish the next round of the fight. Swing-district GOP lawmakers have already weathered a barrage of advertisements from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic allies, accusing them of forsaking the nation's children while standing by the president's war in Iraq.

Public opinion polls show that 75 to 80 percent of the nation supports the vetoed bill. After yesterday's vote, the liberal activist group launched another round of ads, targeting six House Republicans.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company