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House Fails Again at SCHIP Veto Override

By Alex Wayne, CQ Staff

January 23, 2008 -- The House failed Wednesday to override President Bush's second veto of a children's health insurance bill, again confounding Democrats' plans to expand government-sponsored health coverage to include an additional four million low-income kids.

The override failed 260–152, 15 votes short of the two-thirds majority required. Democrats wound up no closer to enacting their signature health policy proposal than they were in October, when their attempt to override Bush's first veto failed by 13 votes. In fact, Democrats lost ground since they passed the second bill Oct. 25 by 265–142, because three Democrats and two Republicans who supported that bill were absent for Wednesday's vote.

The bill (HR 3963) would expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, by $35 billion over five years, to $60 billion. The expansion would be financed by an increase in tobacco taxes, including a 61-cent hike of the cigarette tax to $1.00 per pack. Democrats said the money would be enough for SCHIP to cover 10 million children, about 4 million more than it covers now.

Since last week, Democrats have been making a new argument in support of the bill, describing it as part of a plan to jump-start the flagging economy.

"Here we have a Republican administration making it more difficult for states to cover children at the same time as the need becomes greater every day," said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health. "It's an absolute disgrace in my opinion that this bill was vetoed."

Most Republicans oppose the bill—as well as a previous, very similar measure (HR 976) —because they say, variously, that the bills would cost too much, or raise tobacco taxes too much, or would draw too many middle-income families out of private insurance, or would allow SCHIP to continue covering adults, or would allow illegal immigrants to enroll in the program.

A statement from the White House called the legislation "misguided" because it "would have expanded SCHIP to higher income households while increasing taxes."

Democrats claimed they responded to those concerns in this latest version of the measure, chiefly by including language in the second bill that would cap eligibility for SCHIP at three times the poverty level, or about $64,000 for a family of four.

"Republicans' position is: continue the existing program, perhaps expand coverage somewhat for families above 200 percent of poverty, and cover every child in the country under 200 percent of poverty," said Rep. Joe Barton of Louisiana, the senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Republican leaders have dismissed the idea that the bill is part of an economic stimulus package, saying that expanding a government program will not help the economy.

The failed override does not jeopardize the existing program. Bush signed a law late last year (PL 110-273) that keeps SCHIP running through the end of March 2009 with enough money to maintain coverage at current enrollment levels.

But Democrats consider SCHIP's expansion a powerful political issue, and may seek to force Republicans to vote on it again before the November elections.

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