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SCHIP Fight Is Now ‘Bush Versus the Congress’

Aside from kissing babies, politicians can’t get any more touchy-feely than trying to take care of sick kids, and in another universe, this week’s votes on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program would be considered a win-win for both parties. [IMGCAP(1)]

The $35 billion bill enjoys wide bipartisan support in both chambers and is poised to pass by comfortable margins. But throw in a president determined to stick to his spending regimen and looking for a fight with Congress, and the question is not “Will it pass?” but “Can we override a veto?”

The answer is a likely “no,” but all eyes will be on the House this week to see if it can muster enough votes to put the fear of defeat into President Bush.

As one Senate GOP leadership aide put it, “This has become Bush versus the Congress, not Republicans against Democrats.”

But Bush still is banking on the bulk of House Republicans to sustain his promised SCHIP veto given that 68 Senators — just enough to overcome the veto — are likely to vote for the compromise bill. And it appears he will get his wish, considering that House GOP aides say they expect Democrats will fall well short of the 290 votes needed for a veto-proof majority.

“We’re pretty confident we are going to be able to sustain the president’s veto over here,” a Republican leadership aide said. “A bunch of moderates may peel off.”

And Democrats are in a tough position timing and message-wise. Because they were unable to reach an accord on SCHIP earlier this month, they essentially will be passing their bill to expand the program at the same time they send the president a short-term extension of the existing program. It’s a scenario that doesn’t exactly help make the Democrats’ case that the president is vetoing a desperately needed bill.

And in the long term, it’s unclear where the middle ground between Congress and the White House lies. Bush has recommended spending only $5 billion more on SCHIP and backs a straight extension of the current program compared to the $35 billion increase in the compromise bill and the $50 billion in the original House measure.

Still, Democrats say the issue is a clear-cut winner for them no matter what happens — either they end up with a major bipartisan accomplishment and provide health insurance for 10 million children, an increase of 4 million — or they can paint Republican opponents as captives of the tobacco industry who are out of touch with the working poor.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) gave a preview Monday of the Democrats’ talking points.

“A straight extension of [the program] at current funding or at the president’s cut-rate budget proposal will cause thousands, even millions, of children to lose their health coverage,” Baucus said on the Senate floor. “The president should look to the faces of America’s uninsured children. He should see the time is ripe to do right.”

Democrats also will be making the distinction between who is supporting the measure and who isn’t.

“Once again the extreme right-wing of the House Republican Conference stands in the way of progress in a transparent attempt to score points with their base,” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “Democrats have joined with moderate House Republicans, Senate Republicans and governors of both parties to advance a bill that will ensure 10 million kids have health insurance.”

Meanwhile, Democrats vow that even their attempts to override Bush’s veto will not be the last word on SCHIP this Congress.

“We’re going to continue to bring this back. A) Because it’s the right thing to do, and B) because it’s good politics,” one Senate Democratic aide said.

Of course, House Republican leaders are not taking anything for granted this week and are hoping to shore up support for the veto, charging that Democrats have been using the bill as the first step in a plan for government-run health care for everyone.

“The Democrats’ bill does more to ensure that government-run health care gets a fighting chance in Washington than it does to insure the kids who need affordable health care in this country,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Americans … don’t believe that well-to-do adults with private insurance should get a government handout under a children’s program. It’s just that simple, and I haven’t even mentioned the tax hike yet.”

The measure is paid for by a 61-cent increase in the tobacco tax.

House conservatives who have been arguing all year that they lost Congress by not staying true to their principles, particularly on controlling spending, now have a chance to put some meat behind their rhetoric. “When our Members go home, what do they hear?” asked a GOP aide. “‘Why haven’t you controlled spending? We didn’t send you to Washington to expand government and raise taxes.’”

Conservative interest groups also are weighing in heavily against the bill, with the Club for Growth naming it a key vote.

That ideological opposition, however, runs headlong into strong support nationally for providing health insurance to children, and looks bad next to Republican support for hundreds of billions in spending for the Iraq War, Democrats argue.

Even so, Republican aides complain that the Democratic bill doesn’t do enough to focus spending on the poorest children because it grandfathers in states like New York with higher eligibility standards and allows states to continue covering some adults under the program.

But Democrats and Republicans who back the compromise bill say that it does not expand eligibility and, instead, makes it easier for states to sign up children who already are eligible and curbs coverage of adults.

Antonia Ferrier, spokesman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), also complained that many of the children signed up under the SCHIP bill would be shifted from private insurance plans, crowding out the private insurance market on the taxpayers’ dime. Ferrier said Democrats could have come to House Republicans to forge a compromise but refused to do so.

“Sadly, the bill that we will vote on — and that at this point we haven’t even seen — was written for the purpose of increasing government-run, taxpayer-funded health care,” she said.

Following the House vote this week, the Senate could vote as early as Thursday on a procedural motion to cut off an attempted filibuster. That almost certainly will succeed, and a vote on final passage is expected Thursday night or Friday.

The Senate GOP leadership aide said that Senate Republicans who oppose the bill, including much of the leadership, will put up a minor-league fight over passage of the compromise bill, but said the number of GOP Senators supporting the bill makes a battle royal futile.

“This is a train that’s moving in a certain direction,” the aide said. “And it’s obvious which direction that is — passage.”

Aside from that fight, lawmakers also are putting the finishing touches on a stopgap spending bill that they must pass by the end of the week to avert a government shutdown.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said Monday in a statement that Democrats intended to pass a “clean” bill with exceptions granted for administration requests. In addition to a temporary SCHIP extension and other authorizing language, the measure also is expected to include billions of dollars for new mine-resistant vehicles for the Iraq War.

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