Stalemate ends in failure to override

Children's insurance bill underscores reform difficulties

October 19, 2007|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The failure by House lawmakers to break a stalemate over children's health care legislation yesterday marked another partisan standoff between Congress and the White House and underscored how difficult it will be in the years ahead to reform the larger insurance system, even though it is a top national priority.

Insuring children was considered the easiest part of the health reform challenge because they are cheaper to cover and public support for doing so is high.

But the debate bogged down on two key questions also at the heart of broader health reforms to cover the 47 million uninsured: costs and the role of government in helping middle-class families, not just the poor.

President Bush vetoed a measure this month expanding a popular program that provides health insurance for children of the working poor. As expected, yesterday's attempt to override his veto failed. The 273-156 House vote was 13 short of the two-thirds' majority needed. Despite a two-week campaign to pressure Republicans to switch, only 44 voted to override, one fewer than had originally supported the bill.

Maryland's representatives to Congress voted as they did last month. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the only member of the delegation to oppose the initial bill, voted to uphold Bush's veto.

"I am confident that this important children's health care program will continue," Bartlett said. "The extension until Nov. 16 allows time for a better bipartisan solution."

The rest of Maryland's representatives -- Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest and Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn -- voted to expand the program.

Hoyer, the House majority leader, called the vote "only the first chapter in the campaign to ensure our nation's most vulnerable citizens have access to quality health care. Democrats and Republican supporters of this bill will not stop until the 10 million low-income children we are trying to insure receive the health care they need and deserve."

The White House and some leading proponents of the legislation immediately urged negotiations on a compromise to extend the popular program, which serves about 6 million children. But after a House debate that turned acrimonious, it remained unclear whether they would find common ground.

"The fact that this is stalled ... speaks to how hard it really is to move forward," said Marian Mulkey, a senior policy analyst with the California HealthCare Foundation.

Funding for the program was set to expire Sept. 30, but Congress and the president extended it through mid-November to try to resolve their differences. If Washington policymakers remain deadlocked and simply keep extending the current funding levels through next year, California would face a funding shortfall and would not be able to keep covering all the children it currently serves. Because of rising health care costs and cutbacks in employer coverage, several states find themselves in the same predicament.

It's also uncertain whether states will be able to use the program as part of their own efforts to expand coverage, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had planned to do in California.

Democrats said they were disappointed with the vote, and vowed to turn the issue into a political weapon against Republicans in the 2008 elections.

"I think [this] is a major point of contention in the next election, because it is hard to justify tax cuts to wealthy Americans ... a war that our president ... refuses to pay for, and not being able to find the money to extend health insurance to the children of the middle-class and working families," said Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, the Democratic presidential front-runner. "It doesn't add up morally, it doesn't add up economically, and it doesn't add up politically."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perinea said Bush was pleased with the outcome and wants to compromise with Congress.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes for the Los Angeles Times. Matthew Hay Brown of The Sun's Washington bureau contributed to this article.

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