A push to keep children insured

Congress seeks deal on health plan set to lapse next month

October 15, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown and David Nitkin | Matthew Hay Brown and David Nitkin,Sun Reporters

WASHINGTON -- With the chances looking slim that Congress will be able to override President Bush's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program expansion this week, leaders on Capitol Hill and at the White House are bracing for a potentially bruising round of negotiations to keep current recipients covered.

The popular program for moderate-income families expires in mid-November, and both sides face pressure to reach a deal that maintains funding. But they remain far apart on the costs of a program that Democrats and some Republicans want to expand by millions of children and tens of billions of dollars.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says supporters already have compromised to win bipartisan backing in the House and Senate for the $35 billion expansion approved last month by Congress.

"What we did all agree on is that 10 million children would be covered," Pelosi told reporters last week. "With that as the starting point, we'd be happy to have any conversations, in my view, to insure the 10 million children."

Bush, who proposed a $5 billion expansion, has signaled a willingness to add more money to the program, but nowhere near the amount approved by Congress. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said any compromise would have to involve "a more rational children's health care program -- one that focuses more on poorer children."

At issue is the expansion of a program that now covers more than 6 million children and 670,000 adults from families not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Bush has vetoed legislation that would have expanded the number of children covered to 10 million and moved some of the adults to Medicaid.

The Senate approved the expansion by a veto-proof margin, but the House vote fell short of the two-thirds needed to override. Democrats and their allies have sunk millions of dollars into radio, television and print advertisements during the past two weeks to pressure at least 15 House Republicans to change their nays to yeas for the override attempt scheduled for Thursday.

But of the dozen targeted Republican lawmakers who responded to a query last week by The Sun, all said they planned to vote against the expansion again this week. Rep. Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican who serves as his party's chief deputy whip in the House, said last week that he expected no further defections beyond the 45 party members who already voted for the expansion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called repeatedly on Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the only member of the Maryland delegation to vote against the insurance program's expansion, to switch sides. A spokesman for Bartlett said last week that the Western Maryland Republican has no such plans.

Democrats are not giving up.

"We're just keeping the pressure on," said Montgomery County Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Party's House campaign operation. "We believe that as members hear from their constituents, the pressure will build for them to vote to support children's health."

Some Republican opponents of the expansion accuse Democrats of jeopardizing the program by waiting two weeks before attempting to override Bush's veto. Democrats say they needed the time to try to build support; Republicans say they have been playing politics with the issue.

"I would have much rather spent the time working to come up with a bill which is financially sound and guarantees poor American children are the first in line to receive benefits," said Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican. "By the time we vote ... we will have wasted two important weeks and have less than a month to come up with a plan."

"We believe voters will hold members accountable at the ballot box if they choose President Bush over children's health," van Hollen said.

Bush has described the expansion as a step toward government-funded national health care, and Republican leaders have seized on the debate to talk about again branding the GOP as the party of fiscal responsibility.

But some question whether children's insurance program--popular among most Republican voters as well as Democrats and independents -- is the right issue on which to take that stand. Eighteen Republicans voted for the expansion in the Senate; 45 did in the House.

"This is an issue that divides the two parties, but also splits the Republican Party in two," said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Americans are fiscally conservative, but pragmatically, they like to support programs that are important. This is a program that many Americans view as important."

Launched with bipartisan support during the Clinton administration, the program gives money to states in the form of block grants, which give state officials flexibility to assess local needs and determine who may benefit. In Maryland, a family of four earning up to three times the poverty limit, or $61,950, can get coverage.

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