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Senate Budget Chairman Weighs Stopgap Funding for SCHIP

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) may use a stopgap budget maneuver to fund increases to a key federal children’s health insurance program in order to avoid violating new deficit rules, the lawmaker told CongressNow.

Boosting funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program is a top priority for Democrats, but they face an obstacle in the newly enacted “pay-as-you-go” spending rule. Under the House’s version of PAYGO, any spending increase must be offset by cuts elsewhere. The Senate is preparing a similar rule as part of its budget resolution.

Conrad may propose a reserve fund in order to offset those costs until CBO has scored potential reforms and legislative language has been introduced. A reserve fund is language in a budget resolution that provides that the Budget Committee chairman can later adjust committee allocations when an appropriate committee reports out deficit-neutral legislation on a subject specified in the budget resolution.

Democrats will not be sure how much these fixes will cost until the Congressional Budget Office scores potential legislation, which may not happen for a while, Conrad said.

CBO has its hands full at the moment, including scoring of the continuing budget resolution. Also, health care accounts are “especially difficult” to number-crunch because the interaction between these programs makes their individual financial impact hard to gauge, he added.

Budget resolutions often use reserve funds when the policy behind an initiative is not settled by the time that the budget resolution comes up and the Budget Committee does not yet feel comfortable putting those dollars in it, a Senate Democratic aide said.

Several Republican lawmakers declined to comment on Conrad’s proposal.

SCHIP — a decade-old federal-state effort that provides health insurance for children of low-income families — is currently funded at $5 billion a year. But Democrats want to at least double that figure. Lawmakers such as Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) are seeking $10 billion to $12 billion per year, adding up to $50 billion to $60 billion over a five-year span.

While the program provided 6 million low-income children with medical coverage during 2005, there are as many as 9 million uninsured children now eligible for coverage. That gap led a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, including Baucus and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), to push for funding increases.

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