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House Fails to Override Bush's Veto of Children's Health Bill

By Drew Armstrong, CQ Staff

October 18, 2007 -- The House failed to override President Bush's veto of legislation to expand a children's health insurance program, despite weeks of pressure from Democrats and outside advocacy groups.

The tally Thursday was 273–156, or 13 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the president's Oct. 3 veto of the bill (HR 976). Although the override attempt drew eight more votes than the 265–159 final passage vote on Sept. 25, all of the additional votes came from Democrats. Not a single Republican vote was switched.

The measure would have expanded the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, by $35 billion over five years, to $60 billion, with the costs offset by increased tobacco taxes.

The Senate passed the measure last month by 67–29, more than the two-thirds majority required to overcome a veto. But with the House failure to override, the legislation dies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats would immediately begin work on another SCHIP bill to send to the Bush. Pelosi would not offer details about how the bill might change except to say that Democrats will not consider a different funding offset, and will demand that a new bill cover 10 million children, up from an estimated 6.6 million currently covered.

"In the next two weeks, we intend to send the president another bill that insures and provides health care for 10 million children in our country," Pelosi said. "The president and his allies in Congress today may have stopped the SCHIP bill today but we still will not allow that to deter us from our goal.

Republicans Stand Fast
On the veto override attempt, 44 Republicans joined 229 Democrats in voting to override. That was one fewer than on passage, because Peter T. King, R-N.Y., who voted for the bill Sept. 25, was absent Thursday.

Two Democrats—Jim Marshall of Georgia and Gene Taylor of Mississippi—sided with 154 Republicans in voting to sustain Bush's veto. Both had also voted against the bill when it passed last month.

Six other Democrats who voted "no" the first time around voted to override Bush's veto: Dan Boren, Okla.; Kathy Castor, Fla.; Bob Etheridge, N.C.; Baron P. Hill, Ind.; Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio; and Mike McIntyre, N.C., as did Diane Watson, Calif., who voted "present" on the earlier roll call.

Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., who missed the Sept. 25 vote was present Thursday and joined fellow Democrats in supporting the override attempt.

Three Republicans who missed the first vote were on hand Thursday and voted against overriding the veto: Barbara Cubin, Wyo., Wally Herger, Calif., and Ted Poe, Texas.

Republicans called for negotiations on a more restrictive, less costly program renewal. "Now that the veto has been sustained, it's time to move forward with a serious plan to extend health coverage for those SCHIP was meant to cover: low-income children," declared Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a statement.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., said they would hold fast to their demand that the program be expanded enough to serve 10 million children.

Congress approved a $5 billion extension of SCHIP's authorization through Nov. 16 in the continuing appropriations resolution enacted at the end of last month (PL 110-92), so lawmakers and the White House have a few more weeks to resolve their standoff.

The health program was created 10 years ago by a Republican Congress and Democratic president to provide coverage to children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private health insurance.

The program is funded by both the federal government and the states within general federal guidelines. States have some flexibility to create their own eligibility requirements. In 2006, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 26 states limited eligibility to families earning no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level; 15 states set a higher threshold and nine states had a lower limit for income eligibility. The CBO analysis estimated that 6.6 million children were covered by SCHIP during some portion of 2006.

Priorities, Philosophy
Bush and his GOP backers—along with the Congressional Budget Office—have repeatedly said the vetoed bill would prompt too many families to drop private coverage for their children, shifting that burden to the government. The president has also said it would permit coverage of youngsters in families with incomes of up to $83,000 per year.

John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called those claims "outright lies."

Addressing other charges leveled by Republicans, Dingell said, "This bill terminates the coverage of adults under the SCHIP program, and it prohibits its use for illegal aliens."

But Nathan Deal of Georgia, ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, said the bill needed to be rewritten to "put the poorest children at head of line" for coverage, require states to document the citizenship of recipients, eliminate coverage of all adults except pregnant women as of 2009, and put a net asset cap of $1 million on family eligibility for the program.

Steve King, R-Iowa, denounced the bill as "the cornerstone of socialized medicine."

Room to Negotiate?
Given how close bill supporters came to overriding Bush's veto, Democrats may not need to revise their proposal by much. Bush has signaled he is willing to accept an expansion of the program beyond the $5 billion he proposed earlier this year, provided the additional funding is targeted to provide coverage only to low-income children. But Democrats may try to retain the full $35 billion expansion of the vetoed measure, while tweaking its eligibility provisions slightly in a bid to lure enough additional Republican votes to override any veto.

A GOP proposal to expand the program by $11 billion over five years, sponsored in the House by Tom Price of Georgia and in the Senate by Mel Martinez of Florida, was slated for introduction later in the day.

Their legislation would require states to prove they had covered 90 percent of eligible children in families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level before permitting enrollment of children from families earning up to 250 percent of the poverty level. States have complained that meeting the 90 percent enrollment threshold would be impossible.

The GOP bill would not conform to House pay-as-you-go rules, which require new spending to be offset. A spokesman for Price said the bill would be paid for, but that the spending offsets had not been determined.

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