By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Just one week after failing to override President Bush's veto, House Democrats will put a new version of their $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program to a vote today, hoping that minor changes will win enough Republicans to beat Bush this round.
The new version will underscore that illegal immigrants will not have access to the expanded program. It will ease adults off the program in one year, rather than the two in the vetoed version. And it establishes a firmer eligibility cap at 300 percent of the federal poverty line, just more than $60,000 for a family of four.
The move took Republican leaders by surprise. Bush administration officials yesterday voiced conciliation, suggesting the president could accept legislation that would expand the program by about $20 billion over five years, far bigger than the $5 billion expansion that Bush initially proposed. At the same time, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has been meeting with House and Senate Republicans, urging them to hold the line against an even larger bill. And Bush continues to oppose the tobacco tax increase that Democrats want to fund the measure.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has been meeting all week with some of the 45 House Republicans who voted for the first bill, looking for ways to win the dozen or so votes that supporters needed to override another veto. But Democratic leaders have yet to reach out to the Republicans who voted against the measure.
"When they need my vote, they don't even have the courage to ask me for it," complained Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), who has suffered through a barrage of advertisements from Democratic allies accusing him of forsaking children.
GOP leaders hoped the showdown would be postponed until next week, especially since a number of House members will be traveling with Bush tomorrow to tour fire-devastated Southern California. At a closed-door meeting of House Republicans, they excoriated Democratic leaders for scheduling such an important vote in the midst of a catastrophe.
But Democratic leadership aides said they sense that enough Republicans are ready for the issue to go away that they will vote for the new proposal. At a contentious House GOP meeting with Leavitt on Tuesday night, wavering Republicans pledged that they would stand with the president. But others quietly voiced concerns that the SCHIP showdown is taking a toll on their political prospects.
The new bill seeks to allay concerns laid out by 38 Republicans seeking to vote for the next version. Perhaps most important, it stipulates that applicants must have their Social Security numbers checked by the Social Security Administration. If Social Security cannot confirm citizenship, applicants will be required to provide states with documentation proving eligibility.
It stipulates that no funds will be available to states to cover children in families with incomes exceeding 300 percent of the poverty level. Performance bonuses will be offered to states only for enrolling additional children in Medicaid, the program for the truly poor.
To answer criticism that the bill would encourage families with private health insurance onto government-funded health care, the new version adds performance bonuses for states that provide funding to employed parents to cover the additional cost of enrolling their children in their existing private policies.
The White House showed some movement yesterday. Leavitt said the president is willing to relax his opposition to covering children between twice and three times the poverty level if states meet a "rigorous standard" demonstrating that they have done all they can to enroll more lower-income children.
But a gulf remains over the program's cost. "We're prepared to meet on policy. But if we find common ground on policy, we have to see changes as well in the budget number," he said.
Staff writer Christopher Lee contributed to this report.