AP – The Democratic-controlled House failed to override President Bush’s veto of a politically popular children’s health bill, and the White House instantly called for compromise talks on a replacement.
“As long as the bottom line is that 10 million children are covered. That’s non-negotiable,” responded Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She pledged that new legislation would be ready within two weeks, and within hours, key lawmakers met to consider changes in the vetoed measure.
The maneuvering followed a 273-156 vote Thursday October 18, that left supporters 13 short of the two-thirds majority needed to prevail in a bruising veto struggle between congressional Democrats and a politically weakened Republican president.
It was Bush’s third veto of the year. He has yet to be overridden, although Democrats say they will succeed in doing so on a water projects bill that soon will go to the White House.
“We won this round,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino, despite an aggressive advertising campaign on the insurance bill by Democratic allies that was aimed at GOP lawmakers.
Democrats cited public opinion polls that showed overwhelming support for a health care expansion and they predicted some Republicans would pay a heavy price at the polls for sticking with Bush.
At a cost of $35 billion over five years, the vetoed measure would have added nearly 4 million uninsured children to the insurance program. It provides coverage for those who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, but whose families cannot afford private health care.
“You either stand with our children or you stand against them,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of the Democratic leadership. “There is no in between.”
Critics said that the bill was a step toward socialized medicine, that too many adults benefited and that despite an explicit prohibition, it would allow the children of illegal immigrants to gain coverage.
Democrats do “not want a low income children’s plan,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
“They want what Hillary Clinton called for in 1994, the first step toward government run insurance for all,” he said. As first lady, she unsuccessfully pushed a plan for universal coverage.
Within an hour of the vote, both sides were staking out their ground for compromise talks.
Perino said Bush wants to “take care of poor children first” and was willing to spend more than he has proposed. Going one step further, senior congressional Republicans said it might be possible to cover additional lower-income adults, as long as the states first enrolled 90 percent or 95 percent of their eligible children.
Not long after Perino spoke, key House and Senate Democrats, joined by two Senate Republican supporters of the vetoed bill, met to consider revisions.
While Pelosi made insuring 10 million children a non-negotiable demand, Democratic officials were looking at possible changes in at least two areas.
One would attempt to address the GOP claim that illegal immigrants could obtain coverage, while also assuring that the eligible children without birth certificates are not turned away.
A second was aimed at negating what the Democratic officials said was an inaccurate charge by Republicans that children in some families that are making over $80,000 would qualify for coverage.
At issue was a request from New York officials to cover children from families with incomes up to four times the federal poverty level. The Bush administration denied the request, but officials said it was possible the revised bill might impose a ban to remove any doubt.
Under the 10-year-old program, children from families with incomes of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level—about $41,300 for a family of four—are eligible.
Several states are permitted to enroll children from better-off families, and some cover lower-income adults as well. Ironically, given the complaints from Republicans, many of these states received permission from the administration to expand eligibility.
Republicans had predicted for days they would have the votes to sustain the veto. Democrats held off on the showdown for two weeks to give their allies time to run television and radio advertisements, hold political rallies and make thousands of phone calls.
The campaign failed and miserably so.
While 44 Republicans joined with 229 Democrats in voting to override, none had opposed the bill when it originally cleared the House last month. Two Democrats and 154 Republicans voted to sustain Bush’s action.
While the outcome was not in doubt, tempers flared when Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., brought the Iraq war into the debate.
“You don’t have money to fund the war or children,” he told Republicans. “But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”
Republicans condemned the remark.
“Congressman Stark should retract his statement and apologize to the House, our commander in chief, and the families of our soldiers and commanders fighting terror overseas,” said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader.
The legislation contained an increase in tobacco taxes to pay for the expanded health coverage, including a 61-cent increase on the current 39-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes.
While Perino said Bush does not “believe we need to raise taxes on this,” she did not rule one out. Few congressional Republicans have objected publicly to the proposed increase.
Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., said Democrats had failed to pay for the program in full. Citing estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, he said supporters would need to find an additional $40 billion or terminate health coverage for 6 million eligible children beginning in 2012.