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Bush SCHIP Veto Threat Stands Despite Pelosi Plea

By Mary Agnes Carey and Edward Epstein, CQ Staff

September 28, 2007 -- Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt on Friday reiterated President Bush's promise to veto a $35 billion expansion of children's health insurance just hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made a personal appeal for the president to sign the bill.

While Bush remains committed to reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), the Bush Administration and bill supporters "disagree on the path," Leavitt told reporters Friday afternoon. The White House has said the measure (HR 976) "goes too far toward federalizing health care" and would open the program to families making as much as $83,000 a year, claims that advocates of the bill say are false.

Earlier Friday, Pelosi spoke with Bush and "told him he was in my prayers and said I hoped he would reconsider his decision." White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush told Pelosi, "I'm going to veto this bill and after that, let's see if we can sit down and come to a compromise."

The Senate cleared the SCHIP measure late Thursday with a 67–29 vote, which was sufficient for the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto. The 265–159 House vote on Sept. 25 was not, and supporters acknowledge that the measure does not have enough Republican support in the House for an override. But Pelosi said she told Bush she wouldn't give up in her efforts to get the SCHIP program expanded. "We need only 15 Republicans in the House'' to change their stance on the bill and get enough votes for an override, she said.

Leavitt said Bush would sign a stopgap spending bill (H J Res 52 ) that includes $5 billion to fund 13 states' SCHIP programs through Nov. 16. He said he did not know when Bush would receive the SCHIP legislation, but said he would veto it soon after its arrival.

The SCHIP measure would expand the program by $35 billion over the next five years, to $60 billion. The expansion would be financed by tobacco tax increases, including a 61-cent increase in the cigarette tax, to $1 per pack. SCHIP covers about 6 million children who are low-income but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. The expansion, a top priority of congressional Democrats, would result in about 5.8 million additional children enrolling in SCHIP and Medicaid, according to the Congressional Budget Office, with two-thirds of them otherwise uninsured.

"Where the major disagreement comes is in how we help those who are in better off income situations, that is to say greater than 200 percent of the poverty line . . . . We think there are ways to be helpful to Americans who have need, but we don't think SCHIP is the way to do that," Leavitt said. Once an SCHIP package is agreed to, Leavitt said the administration would like to discuss with Congress other ways to provide health care coverage to those who need it.

As part of his State of the Union address, Bush proposed tax deductions of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families to help them purchase health insurance—no matter what the cost or type, or whether it is purchased through an employer—but the plan has gained little traction on Capitol Hill. While some lawmakers have accused Bush of holding the SCHIP bill hostage as a way to push other health care initiatives—such as his tax credit proposal—Leavitt said Friday that was not the case.

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