The House passed a $35 billion plan to more than double spending on children’s health care over the next five years on a 265-159 vote Tuesday, but Republicans showed that they have the votes to easily sustain a promised presidential veto.
Forty-five Republicans crossed party lines to support the bill, which is paid for by a 61-cents-a-pack tobacco tax hike and is expected to get a veto-proof 68 votes in the Senate. Eight Democrats voted against the package.
House Democratic leaders called the vote on the House-Senate compromise round one of many rounds on the children’s health bill, warning Republicans and President Bush that they will not rest until the bill becomes law.
“For us it is inevitable,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “This legislation will haunt [Bush] again and again and again. We are in for the long haul.”
She even added a Biblical reference. “Please do not give new meaning to the words ‘Suffer little children.’”
But Bush reiterated his veto threat and administration officials lobbied hard against the bill on Capitol Hill, charging that it amounted to a costly government takeover of private health care that would take many children off of private insurance and onto government-paid insurance.
The Democratic plan would put 10 million children in the program, an increase of four million, while the administration’s proposal would cut the number of children who would be covered and cost $30 billion less, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
As Republican leaders sought to keep their ranks in line, they ramped up their rhetoric against the bill, charging that it would make it easier for illegal immigrants to get health care, relied on a budgetary gimmick to hide its cost, included at least two earmarks that were not properly disclosed and failed to focus spending on the poorest children instead of the middle class.
“Using this critical program to provide government benefits to adults, illegal immigrants and upper-income families who can afford private health insurance is bad policy,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) predicted that every Democrat would vote to override a veto and three Democrats who would have supported the bill were absent. Hoyer said Democrats are about 12 votes short of being able to override a veto if Democrats vote as a bloc and Republicans who voted for the bill vote for an override.
“This certainly should give the president pause,” Hoyer said.
Democrats nonetheless faced a near-revolt from some Members on the House floor over the lack of coverage for legal immigrants. Several Members of the Hispanic caucus voted “present” before changing their votes to “yes” after being talked to by members of leadership. Democrats also twisted some arms, notably that of Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who was strongly opposed to the tobacco tax because he has tobacco farmers in his district. Butterfield was whipped by a succession of more powerful Democrats, culminating in an audience with Pelosi and Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who had his arm around Butterfield.
“It was a very tough decision,” said Butterfield, who added that he viewed support for children’s health insurance as a “moral obligation.”
But while the North Carolina district is among the poorest areas in the nation, it is also home to the largest tobacco-producing county. During the day, Butterfield said he spoke not only with Democratic leadership, but Rangel and North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D).
“All day long I have been in serious reflection,” said Butterfield. “Given what I call the totality of the circumstances, I had to vote for it.”
He added as he exited the Capitol: “It’s been a trying day for me.”
After Butterfield voted “yes,” Roll Call spotted House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) handing Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) cash and the trio exploded in laughter.
One Democratic voting against the measure, Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), also voted down the earlier House proposal, citing the tobacco-tax increase on both occasions.
“It’s a heck of a tax increase on the least among us,” Taylor said.
Republicans meanwhile saw numerous defections toward the end of the vote, once they had crossed the threshold needed to assure sustaining a presidential veto.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said beforehand that Republicans were whipping the bill only to sustain a veto rather than trying to line up Members in difficult districts to take a tough vote.
The Missouri lawmaker dismissed suggestions that Democrats could force a new vote on the measure every few months. “The longer this bill is out there, the more problems people will find in it,” he asserted.
Democratic leaders avoided a direct response Tuesday when asked how the House will respond to an expected presidential veto of the legislation.
“We’ll have to figure that out. Our interest is to cover at least 10 million children,” said Hoyer. He noted that Democrats would hold the bill for a signature until next week. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure Friday.
In the meantime, Democrats included $5 billion to temporarily extend SCHIP as part of a stopgap spending bill that they introduced Tuesday and are expected to vote on in the House today. That bill generally extends existing programs at current levels until Nov. 16, although it includes a number of anomalies, including $5.2 billion for new mine-resistant vehicles intended for use in Iraq and $165,200 each to the widows of Sen. Craig Thomas and Rep. Paul Gillmor. The bill also includes partial funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but only at the $70 billion-a-year level provided for in last year’s Defense bill rather than the current spending rate.
The looming SCHIP veto is the first salvo in what is expected to be a months-long tussle between the White House and Democrats over spending and the Iraq War. Democrats want more spending on a range of domestic spending programs opposed by the White House, which is expected to ask for up to $200 billion in additional war spending.
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.