Democrats Eager to Force Repeated SCHIP Votes

Posted October 15, 2007 at 6:36pm

Convinced children’s health care will be a political sword of Damocles against vulnerable Republicans, Democrats plan to keep the issue hanging over the GOP’s head between now and the 2008 elections — assuming the House votes as expected to sustain the president’s State Children’s Health Insurance Program veto on Thursday.

[IMGCAP(1)] In this instance the majority’s weapon of choice is children, and Democrats this week will ensure that heart strings are

sufficiently tugged by rolling out a passel of poster boys and girls — including, but not limited to, embattled 12-year-old Graeme Frost — as part of a last-minute blitz to woo an additional 15 Republican defectors.

And even though Republicans who oppose the bill have a weak hand politically, GOP leaders are confident that they will hold the line and hope that their vote will bring Democrats to the bargaining table.

“Look, [Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)] is going to compromise. There’s no choice. We’re not going to walk away and leave these young people from low-income families uninsured,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Democrats concede that McConnell is right in one respect. They will not allow the program to expire, but they will use votes on multiple extensions of the current program as well as revotes on the bill to keep the political fire lit under the Republicans’ rear ends.

“It is in every Democrat’s best interest to make them continue to vote on it,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

And Democrats appear in no mood to compromise when they feel they have Republicans right where they want them.

“The question is whether some Members will continue to choose partisan obstruction or will they embrace a bipartisan compromise that will provide health insurance to 10 million children,” Pelosi said Monday. “Our bipartisan coalition will not rest until those 10 million children have health care.”

The senior Senate Democratic aide was more blunt: “The one possibility we aren’t open to is negotiating with the administration.” The aide said the White House “has shown nothing but bad faith” and can’t deliver more Congressional GOP votes for the measure.

“He’s bringing a knife to a gunfight, and there’s no way we’re going to allow him to play,” the aide said of President Bush.

House Republicans, meanwhile, complained that Democrats had cut them out of the discussion in favor of scoring political points.

“It’s hard to talk about a real, substantive SCHIP compromise when Democrats won’t even entertain the idea of a discussion with House Republicans,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “After a two-week delay on the override vote, we certainly hope the Democrats have gotten politicizing this issue out of their system so we can move forward in a truly bipartisan way to start negotiating.”

Democrats do hold out the possibility of making modest changes to the bill in order to get 15 or more House Republicans to vote for a veto override, but they remain firm on their $35 billion price tag and covering 10 million children.

“The president and Republicans want this pain to end … so they could be willing to give in after a few tweaks,” a senior House Democratic aide said.

However, Democratic aides in both chambers cautioned that they have not settled on a firm strategy following Thursday’s vote, primarily because they are still hoping to obviate the need for a Plan B by convincing enough Republicans to support them this week. Still, they acknowledge that’s not the expected outcome.

Democrats see a political victory either way — accomplishing a major expansion of health insurance for children or having an issue to caricature the Republicans as blind to the needs of the country’s working class kids. That caricature gained some credence when GOP bloggers attacked Democrats’ first poster child, Frost, saying that his family was too wealthy to be on the government dole. Democrats pointed out that the Frost family made nearly $10,000 less than their state’s maximum income threshold for SCHIP, though Republicans still argue that the Frosts make enough money that the government should not be paying for their health insurance.

Meanwhile, Democrats say some Republicans are using other arguments against the bill that have been consistently discredited in their desperation to defend their opposition.

For example, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) complained on “Fox News Sunday” this week that SCHIP in many states covers too many adults and isn’t focused on poor children.

“We have 500,000 eligible children who have not been signed up for the children’s health insurance program, yet there are 700,000 adults on the program,” Boehner protested.

But as Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — one of the bill’s Republican authors — has pointed out, the bill actually prohibits states from covering any more non-pregnant adults and requires them to phase out adults who currently are covered. Democrats have added that those adults on SCHIP got coverage only after the Bush administration granted states waivers to include them.

Indeed, Grassley has taken it upon himself to try and flip some GOP votes on the House side, but it’s unclear whether that will work.

“While the override vote seems unlikely to succeed, it’s also early in the week, a lot of outside groups are involved, the members know how much is at stake and Sen. Grassley and colleagues are making a strong effort to help House members sort fact vs. fiction regarding the compromise bill,” said a Grassley spokeswoman via e-mail. Hope springs eternal in the Grassley camp, she added, “So, it’s a little premature to plot post-vote strategy.”

Democrats also say they are leaving no GOP stone unturned.

“Every Member on the fence is being talked to, called, Republicans in the Senate are lobbying hard,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Pelosi.

Meanwhile, Democrats have many opportunities for forcing SCHIP votes between now and the 2008 elections. They could attach it to other popular measures or attach it to war spending, one of the few things Bush still wants out of Congress before he leaves office. Democrats used the previous war supplemental to shove through a minimum-wage hike and $17 billion in extra spending. Democrats already have linked the war funding to SCHIP rhetorically, questioning Bush for seeking an extra $190 billion for war in the coming year while vetoing $35 billion for children’s health insurance as too expensive.

At the same time, House Republicans are searching for alternatives besides Bush’s $5 billion for the program, which isn’t enough to pay for the children currently covered.

Boehner said over the weekend that Republicans are working on their own health care proposal “that will provide access to all Americans to high quality health insurance. … This is a plan that we’ll see over the next coming months where we put the patients back in charge of their health care.”

But Democrats continue to scoff at the GOP, arguing that they are grasping at straws. As the senior Senate Democratic aide put it, “There aren’t any bad outcomes for us on SCHIP.”