Fresh divisions among Senate Republicans have emerged over their leaders’ and the White House’s handling of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, with a number of rank-and-file lawmakers complaining that the party lacks a comprehensive, coordinated strategy to beat back attacks from Democrats and aligned liberal groups.
President Bush’s veto of the SCHIP reauthorization bill last week set off a massive political fight that is expected to dominate Congress for the next two weeks as the House prepares for an Oct. 18 override vote.
Although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) late last week began an effort to push back against Democratic charges that the GOP is acting callously in opposing their bill, some Republicans complained they already are in an untenable position.
“Because the president and Republican leaders are not pushing a positive health care agenda, a lot of people are not comfortable opposing anything that has children in it,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said, arguing that this “lack of a forceful positive agenda from the president and leaders in Congress has sort of split our caucus.”
A second GOP lawmaker agreed, arguing that there has been “no coordinated message to speak of.” This lawmaker also said that while a number of members of the Conference had argued they should get in front of the issue by framing it as a broader health care reform debate, neither the White House nor leadership took up the call.
Seeking to exploit the GOP’s disunity on the issue, Democrats late last week said they are in no mood to compromise.
When asked about signals from Bush that he was open to a deal, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) slammed the door shut on the possibility.
“That’s an insult … you cannot wring another ounce of compromise out of this,” Reid said. “We’re not going to compromise. If he’s hoping for that, he better hope for something else like getting our troops home from Iraq.”
With enough House Republicans still sticking with Bush, a coalition of union, anti-war and liberal interest groups Friday announced a two-week-long, million-dollar ad campaign on the issue. Targeting more than 34 House districts, these groups will run television ads featuring young children and mothers in which they accuse Bush of blocking health care for poor children.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union also are planning a series of member call-ins to lawmakers and protests outside their offices, while Americans United for Change, MoveOn.org and others plan similar protests, many of which will feature children with red wagons and vigils outside district offices.
McConnell on Friday “reintroduced” a compromise SCHIP package backed by some GOP lawmakers, which, while boosting the overall funding level, remains well below the amount already passed by Congress. In what aides said will be a theme for the Minority Leader over the next few weeks, McConnell argued in a statement released Friday that Democrats are looking to use the issue to their political advantage.
“All of us can agree that providing health care to low-income children is important. Democrats should not use these children as a political pawn for campaign purposes. These kids deserve our best work, and we owe it to them to forge a bipartisan compromise the president can sign,” McConnell said.
Additionally, McConnell and other leaders will continue to make the case that Bush’s veto was necessary to hold the line on spending at the federal level while pursuing a local media strategy in which they argue that under the Democratic plan, tax dollars from those areas will be used to subsidize children’s health care programs in New York City and other urban areas.
Although McConnell and a number of his colleagues are now looking to pursue compromise legislation, DeMint and others warn that a noncomprehensive approach will do little to ease the minds of worried Republican lawmakers or inspire voters.
“An agenda that is Democrat-lite isn’t going to inspire our base and the American people,” DeMint said, adding that “unless there’s some leadership cover … then it’s difficult to make a case for voting against something.”
House Democrats already have begun to capitalize on those divisions. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) last week circulated a compendium of statements supporting the bill from Senate Republicans — including Republican Policy Committee Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — who voted for the bill.
The defections by such high-profile Senators rankled many Republicans, who complained it puts a particular strain on members of the Conference who voted with the party and who are up for re-election. “It certainly doesn’t help when you have senior members of leadership who aren’t up for re-election breaking ranks,” one GOP aide said.