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Senate Passage of SCHIP Measure Increases Pressure on President Bush

September 28, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was joined at a Capitol Hill news conference this week by 9-year-old Gemma Frost. Gemma and her brother, Graeme, suffered traumatic brain injuries in a car accident three years ago.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: With the help of CHIP coverage, the Frost family had the security of knowing that, even in the time of family tragedy, that Gemma and Graeme had access to the care that they needed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Pelosi was referring to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-CHIP, which Congress created a decade ago to fill gaps in health coverage for children whose families earned too much to qualify for Medicaid but still couldn’t afford private insurance. More than 6.5 million children now are covered under the program.

But when congressional leaders recently announced plans to expand S-CHIP to cover an additional four million children at an overall cost of $60 billion over five years, financed through a 61-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, President Bush issued a veto threat.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Democratic leaders in Congress want to put more power in the hands of government by expanding federal health care programs. Instead of expanding S-CHIP beyond its original purpose, we should return it to its original focus, and that is helping poor children, those who are most in need.

Republicans oppose legislation

KWAME HOLMAN: Most house Republicans lined up behind the president during debate on S-CHIP expansion this week. Jeb Hensarling of Texas.

REP. JEB HENSARLING (R), Texas: Make no mistake about it. This is a government-run, socialized health care wolf masquerading in the sheepskin of children's health care.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats were almost unanimous in their support for expanding the program. New Jersey's Frank Pallone.

REP. FRANK PALLONE (D), New Jersey: The same block grant that Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton advocated 10 years ago, but practically speaking, we know that, for the first time in the last two years, the number of uninsured kids has now gone up instead of going down, so we have to do something about it.

Democrats argue for priorities

KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday night, 45 Republicans helped Democrats push the expanded S-CHIP program through the House by a wide margin, but still 18 votes shy of the two-thirds that would be needed to override the president's threatened veto.

The Senate launched into its debate on Thursday, with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn warning of a much higher price tag once the S-CHIP program is expanded.

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), Oklahoma: How about being honest with the American people about the true cost of what we're doing here? It's $121 billion. It's not $60 billion. Even the staff admits that. Both the Democrat and Republican staff admit that.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin insisted the issue wasn't cost but priorities.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: This measure that costs $6 billion dollars a year is an amount of money that pales in comparison to what the president is going to ask us to continue to spend on the war in Iraq. His request will be near $200 billion, $200 billion for a war in Iraq, $200 billion for helping the people of Iraq the president believes we can afford, but he argues we can't afford $6 billion for more health insurance for America's children.

Disagreement over income limit

KWAME HOLMAN: Texas Republican John Cornyn countered with the claim that the new S-CHIP program would be available to families making $82,000 a year.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: In New York City, they want to be able to cover up to 400 percent of poverty. A family making $82,000 a year would be -- half of whom would be displaced from their private health insurance to get government-funded health insurance at the courtesy of the beleaguered American taxpayer. And that's wrong.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, one of the co-authors of the S-CHIP legislation, called that claim "intellectually dishonest."

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: Mr. President, I have one simple question to ask all the critics of this bill who, when confronted with the actual policies in this compromise, respond by shrieking, "$80,000 income, $80,000 income!" And that question is: If this bill became law tomorrow, how many families earning $80,000 a year would be eligible for this Children's Health Insurance Program? And the answer, Mr. President, is none. None.

Support from more House Republicans

KWAME HOLMAN: Last night, the Senate passed the bill with just enough votes to override a presidential veto. And Iowa's Grassley now is calling House Republicans looking for more support there.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: If the president would veto this, I hope it's overturned. If it's not overturned, then I'm going to take a step of approaching Democrats and see what we can do to modify this, and maybe we can get the president to sign something.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Congress already had compromised as much as it could.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: We have squeezed everything we can out of this. We both -- and when I say "we both," the House and the Senate wanted more. This is the very best we could do. And if the president comes back and tries to tell us, "Well, let's sit down and talk about it," it is something that will not happen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Democratic leaders sent the expanded S-CHIP bill off to the White House, fully aware it probably will come back with a veto stamp sometime next week.