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House Democrats Scaling Back Duration of Children's Health Bill

By Drew Armstrong, CQ Staff

JANUARY 8, 2009--House Democrats are scaling back plans to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program, as budget scoring problems and rising costs make a five-year reauthorization unlikely.

Instead, they likely will pursue a shorter reauthorization, leaving states that depend on SCHIP money less certain about future funding. House Democrats say they are still planning to base the core of the shorter SCHIP bill on legislation from the last Congress.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told the House Friday that the SCHIP legislation will be considered on the floor under a rule either Jan. 14 or 15, and that the bill probably will be available online Monday, Jan. 12.

Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that the Republican leadership planned to release a letter late Friday outlining its ideas for the program. He also said he hoped that whatever rule is set for the bill will allow amendments. "We hope we will have an opportunity to offer our ideas," Cantor said.

President Bush twice vetoed SCHIP reauthorization bills in the 110th Congress that would have expanded the program by $35 billion over five years, to $60 billion.

Since then, however, the costs of the program have grown and the revenue-raising power of the 61-cents-per-pack tobacco tax that would have funded it has shrunk.

"The budget window has changed and with it the numbers," said a senior aide to the House Democratic leadership.

"The [reauthorization] length may or may not be five years, depending on what [the Congressional Budget Office] gives us."

It will almost certainly be shorter if the CBO assigns a lower cost "baseline" to the bill, limiting how much money lawmakers can assign to it.

"Since the baseline has changed and the costs have gone up since we passed the bill last year, we are heading towards something under five years," said an aide to a senior House Democrat who worked on the SCHIP legislation.

The SCHIP program covered 7.1 million people — mostly children — in 2007 and is projected to cost the federal government $6.1 billion in 2009, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"We are waiting on numbers from CBO, which will tell us both costs and coverage and determine the scope of possibilities," said the Democratic leadership aide. "A final decision will be made once that is known."

Democrats are seeking to pass the bill as a quick way to give President-elect Barack Obama a victory on health policy. It is likely to be considerably later in the year before Congress is ready to start work on a comprehensive health care overhaul.

Initially, at least, the reduced duration for the legislation did not seem to upset some key House advocates.

"Although a five-year reauthorization would be great, it's more important to have a stronger bill," said the Democratic House aide. "The length of the bill isn't as vital since we will be able to come back and look at some of these issues when we tackle health reform," said the aide.

Edward Epstein contributed to this story.

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