Senate Passes Health Insurance Bill for Children

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009

The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday to provide health insurance to 11 million low-income children, a bill that would for the first time spend federal money to cover children and pregnant women who are legal immigrants.

The State Children's Health Insurance Program, which is aimed at families earning too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance, currently covers close to 7 million youngsters at a cost of $25 billion.

Lawmakers voted 66 to 32, largely along party lines, to renew the joint state-federal program and spend an additional $32.8 billion to expand coverage to 4 million more children. The expansion would be paid for by raising the cigarette tax from 39 cents a pack to $1.

The House approved similar legislation on Jan. 14, and President Obama is expected to sign a final version as early as next week.

During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged to provide coverage to every American child. Experts estimate that once the program is fully implemented about 5 million youngsters will remain uninsured.

Democratic lawmakers, noting that President George W. Bush twice vetoed similar legislation, praised the vote as evidence of the changing Washington landscape.

"Low-income, uninsured kids all across America have been waiting for Congress to fulfill the promise of the Children's Health Insurance Program for them," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.). The program "works to get low-income, uninsured kids the doctor's visits and medicines they need to stay healthy, and approval of this bill opens the door of the doctor's office to millions of children who live without proper health care today."

But the political victory may come at a price. The rancorous debate -- on a program that once basked in bipartisan popularity -- raised doubts about whether the two parties can unite to pass broader health reform later this year, several moderate Republicans said.

"This is a very unfortunate beginning," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa). The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, a stalwart supporter of the program, said he was "disgusted" by the way Democratic leaders handled the debate. "It does not bode well for cooperative work in the coming months," he said. But Grassley emphasized that he did not blame Baucus for the change in substance and style.

As the vote came just one day after the House passed an $819 billion economic stimulus package without a single Republican vote, some longtime lawmakers questioned the president's ability to forge a new era of cooperation in the capital.

"If they wanted a nice signing ceremony that showed bipartisanship and carried through on the president's language, this would have been a good vehicle to do it on," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

Since its creation in 1997 under a Republican-led Senate, the children's health program has received broad bipartisan support.

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