Will US Congress Override Bush SCHIP Veto?

President George Bush is beating back critics on both sides of the aisle in the US Congress to defend his veto of legislation that proposed spending $35 billion over five years to provide health care for 10 million American children who will otherwise lack coverage.

The SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) is a federal initiative that ensures health care for children in working families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid assistance yet cannot afford private health insurance.

The bill to expand health care coverage recently passed with bipartisan support in the US Congress, by votes of 68-31 in the Senate and 265-159 in the House of Representatives. It was vetoed by President Bush on Wednesday.

Mr Bush insists that the government should only ensure health care for “poor children” and warned that “federalizing” health care would be bad for the US.

“The policies of the government ought to … focus on poor children [and] help people find private insurance, not federal coverage,” Mr Bush said in a speech to the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on Thursday. “I happen to believe that what you’re seeing when you expand eligibility for federal programs is the desire by some in Washington, D.C. to federalize health care. I don’t think that’s good for the country. I believe in private medicine.”

Democrats are fuming at what they see as partisan ideology overtaking the need to address a crisis in which 45 million Americans lack health cover. “This is a presidency fixated on ideology and not one fixated on solving the nation’s problems,” Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) told Newsday. “Kids need health care.”

Some of Mr Bush’s strongest supporters also reacted angrily to the veto. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) rejected outright that the bill represents a move towards socialized medicine, yet diplomatically suggested that the president had received “pretty bad advice”. He told the New York Times, “If we’re truly compassionate, it seems to me, we’d want to endorse this program. I don’t think the president is somebody who doesn’t want these kids to be covered. I think he’s been given some pretty bad advice by some who, though sincere, are sincerely wrong.” Mr Hatch added that he hoped Congress could “muster enough votes to overturn this veto”.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), senior Republican on the Finance Committee and one of the bill’s lead sponsors, personally appealed to Mr Bush to approve the legislation. On hearing news of the veto, he declared, “We’ve got to do what we can to try to override.”

Independent peak health organizations are also vocally supporting efforts to override the veto.

Edward Langston, who chairs the American Medical Association’s board of trustees, told the Associated Press, “The number of uninsured kids has increased by nearly 1 million over the past year, and action must be taken to reverse this trend. The AMA strongly urges members of Congress from both political parties to stand on the side of America’s parents and children by voting to override the veto.”

Jay Berkelhamer, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics also warned that the veto will “have a serious negative impact on low-income children and their families across this nation.”

In Louisiana, the US state which ranks lowest out of 50 in the United Health Foundation’s Overall America’s Health Rankings, Governor Kathleen Blanco said in a statement: “I am extremely disappointed President Bush has decided to turn his back on the children of Louisiana and our country.  Health insurance is fast becoming a luxury when it should be a basic right.  In Louisiana alone, some 100,000 children depend on our SCHIP program, LaCHIP, for critical access to the health care they need.”

Support for the SCHIP legislation among Louisiana’s federal representatives has been determined along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor of expanding health coverage and Republicans voting against the bill in both houses of the US Congress.

The exception has been Senator Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana gubernatorial candidate, who did not cast a vote in the US Senate on August 2. According to the New York Times, he has decided to help overturn President Bush’s veto.

Mr Jindal recently said in a televised gubernatorial debate that every citizen in Louisiana should have “affordable, high quality health care” and promised to deliver this outcome if elected governor.

Republicans seem most divided over the electoral advantages and disadvantages associated with expanding SCHIP coverage. Many cite a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll which shows that 72 percent of Americans support the $35 billion package passed by both houses of Congress to expand health coverage under SCHIP, while 67 percent would not approve the $190 million requested to continue funding the Iraq War.

Yet others in the GOP believe that this is an important opportunity for the party to reclaim its fiscal responsibility “brand”. In one interview, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) said that by standing firmly by the presidential veto, “there is an opportunity in the next few months for the Republicans to regain their brand. We can’t win elections nationally if more Americans think Democrats are more fiscally responsible than Republicans.”

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also told the PBS NewsHour that the veto is a mark of sound fiscal decision-making, and said that working parents should provide heath coverage for their children. “I think in a perfect world, somebody who has a job should have insurance, and we should encourage that. But I think what the taxpayers are expecting us to do is spend their money wisely.”

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) hit back that this was a twisted attempt to check spending after years of “rubber stamping” what he called “out-of-control spending” by President Bush. “People know that it’s wrong to ask for $190 billion increase for the war in Iraq and yet deny 10 million children health care and call it excessive spending,” he said. “[Republicans] have rubber-stamped him on the war, they have rubber-stamped on out-of-control spending. And I can’t give them political advice, but rubber-stamping him on denying 10 million children health care doesn’t many any sense.”

Although there are enough votes in the US Senate to override the presidential veto, Democrats still need to gather 20 additional votes in the House by October 18, when they will vote on overriding the veto.

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