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House Fails to Override Children’s Health Insurance Veto

October 18, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Even as the debate got underway, Democrats knew they were unlikely to secure the few crucial Republican votes needed to overturn the president’s veto of a bipartisan bill providing health insurance to children in low- and middle-income families.

Nonetheless, they wanted to try, and the debate was heated. Georgia Democrat John Lewis.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, D-┬áGa.: Today we must override the president’s veto, because it is the right thing to do for our children. We have a mission, an obligation, and a mandate to provide health insurance for all the children and override the president’s veto. We can spend millions and billions of dollars on war, but we cannot take care of health care for our children.

KWAME HOLMAN: The State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, was created 10 years ago to close the coverage gap for families who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid but still not enough to afford private health insurance.

About 6.6 million children and some 700,000 adults, including pregnant women, received SCHIP coverage last year. Last month, Democrats and some Republicans approved a bill that would raise an extra $35 billion over five years from a new cigarette tax and send it to states to fund health plans covering up to 10 million children.

But the president, who had proposed a much smaller increase, vetoed the bill two weeks ago, saying in a statement it would “shift SCHIP away from its original purpose” of covering low-income children.

In response, Democrats embarked on a two-week lobbying campaign, staging rallies on Capitol Hill…

RALLY LEADER: We want thank you for coming out tonight.

KWAME HOLMAN: … as labor and health groups ran television ads in the districts of politically vulnerable Republicans.

TELEVISION AD NARRATOR: So ask your representative, do they stand with him or with them?

Republicans say bill too expansive

KWAME HOLMAN: But today, House Republicans stood behind the president and upheld his veto, arguing the bill would encourage too many middle-class families to forgo private insurance for the federally funded program. Greg Walden of Oregon.

REP. GREG WALDEN, R -Ore. : Half of the 1.2 million new enrollees in the expansion of SCHIP under this proposal already have insurance, already have insurance, and that's according to the Congressional Budget Office. When it comes to adults, they cost 60 percent more to care for than kids. This program should be about helping expand coverage to children whose families do not have access to health insurance.

KWAME HOLMAN: One of the president's principal objections was debated on the floor again today: Just how much could families earn and still be eligible for SCHIP coverage? Republican Wally Herger of California.

REP. WALLY HERGER, R-Calif.: All of us support SCHIP, and we all want to reauthorize it, but we need to put low-income kids first. This bill would expand the program to families making more than $60,000 a year. That's not low income; it's a majority of the households in America.

Democrats refute Republican points

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans said the bill would allow coverage for families earning $83,000 a year. New York Democrat Charles Rangel said that's not so.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL, D-N.Y.: Let me get to the one that I'm most familiar with, this $83,000 ability of people to enjoy SCHIP. No one is more familiar with this than I am.

It was the great state of New York that exercised its request for a waiver to ask the president of the United States whether or not a family of four would be allowed to buy in, even though they were making $83,000. And guess what? Under existing law -- not new law -- the president of the United States says, "Hell no, you can't do it."

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats also said, far from allowing more adults to be covered, their bill actually would require states to shrink the number of enrolled adults and would not allow illegal immigrants to sign up for benefits. Democrats argued the fight actually was about priorities. Gene Green of Texas.

REP. GENE GREEN, D-Texas: It's frustrating when we have a health care crisis in our country that we can't cover children. When the White House asked Congress just recently for a special $190 billion for the war in Iraq, over and above the hundreds of billions we've already spent, why can't we find much less than that for covering 10 million low-income children, parents who are working in this country?

Work on new SCHIP authorization

KWAME HOLMAN: But Republicans, including Texas' Kevin Brady, said the bill does not make fiscal sense.

REP. KEVIN BRADY, R-Texas: The first years are affordable. Then it balloons beyond of what we can pay for. If we believe in it, let's pay for it now. It allows abuses to continue; it doesn't cover the poor kids first.

CLERK: The bill is not passed.

KWAME HOLMAN: The failure to override the SCHIP veto was welcomed at the White House. The president dispatched a team of negotiators to the Capitol to start work on a new authorization for a program all sides agree is vital.