WASHINGTON — Despite weeks of intense political pressure on select GOP lawmakers, Democrats in the House of Representatives failed Thursday to garner enough Republican support to overturn President Bush's veto of a bipartisan bill to expand health coverage for low-income children.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Democrats will begin negotiating immediately with the White House on a compromise to renew and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program and will present the president with a new proposal within two weeks.
President Bush has selected Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, National Economic Council Director Al Hubbard and Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle to negotiate with Congress for the administration.
Leavitt said that the administration "offers an open door" and that he looks forward to "helping craft legislation that we can all support."
"We have many areas of agreement, and I'm hopeful that we can soon find consensus on the issues that divide us," he said.
As it became clear that the override effort would fail, Pelosi expressed to Bush her willingness to tweak the legislation, which would have increased SCHIP funding by $35 billion over five years. The measure also would have increased the number of youngsters covered by the popular program from 6.6 million to 10 million by 2012.
Pelosi said she's happy to negotiate with the White House, "as long as the bottom line is that 10 million children are covered. That is not negotiable."
The override vote passed 273-156 on Thursday, but fell 13 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to have dealt Bush the first veto override of his tenure. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll of 1,212 adults conducted this week found 61 percent of Americans wanted Congress to overturn the veto, while 35 percent did not. The Senate passed the measure by a veto-proof majority on Sept. 27.
"I grieve greatly that we did not prevail today," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. "And I also grieve that the president was apparently misled by bad advice from bad advisers."
Even though unions, congressional Democrats and advocacy groups poured millions of dollars into television and radio ads targeting several dozen Republicans who supported the president's position, no GOP lawmaker changed his or her vote to support the measure.
Forty-four Republicans voted to override the veto on Thursday, compared with 45 who supported the proposal when it first passed the House on Sept. 25.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who voted for the measure in September, didn't vote on Thursday. Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., missed the Sept. 25 vote and Thursday's vote.
It's unclear whether significant numbers of Republicans would ever switch their votes to support such legislation because few are vulnerable on health care in their districts and no Republican presidential candidates have criticized the Bush veto, said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
"Had Rudy Giuliani or had John McCain started parting company with the president on this, then you might have gotten more pressure to defect. But it isn't obvious that a sufficient number of Republicans will peel off," Mann said.
Of eight Democrats who opposed the legislation in September, all but two voted for the proposal on Thursday. Only Reps. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., and Jim Marshall, D-Ga., voted against it.
A group of moderate Republicans led by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., sent a letter to Pelosi on Thursday outlining a possible compromise. Her suggestion calls for states to first enroll children from families who make less than twice the poverty level, to phase out adults from the program and to limit the number of higher-earning families who take their children out of private insurance plans to enroll them in the cheaper SCHIP program.
Wilson seemed hopeful that a deal could be reached. "Relatively minor changes would yield a broad bipartisan coalition to pass the bill," she said.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, introduced new legislation on Thursday to reauthorize the program and provide a $1,400 per child tax credit toward the purchase of private health care. A similar House bill was introduced by Republicans Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Tom Price of Georgia, Tom Feeney of Florida and Tim Walberg of Michigan.
"We've got to have solutions," Martinez said. "It's not enough to have clever rhetoric. We have to really come to a point where we pull together on how we're going to solve the problem."
When asked if she would consider the proposal, Pelosi snapped back, "No."
In the meantime, MoveOn.Org is launching a new round of television ads targeting six Republicans who supported the veto: Musgrave, Walberg, Feeney and Reps. John "Randy" Kuhl of New York, Ric Keller of Florida, and Sam Graves of Missouri.
The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA set up toll-free hot lines to connect smokers with their congressional representatives to voice their objections to the SCHIP proposal, which was to be funded by steep tax increases on tobacco products, including a 61-cent increase on a pack of cigarettes.
Bill Phelps, a Philip Morris spokesman, said it makes no sense to fund a federal program with a declining revenue source. "We will continue to oppose tax increases that unfairly target adults who smoke," Phelps said.
The Cancer Action Network has said the 61-cent-per-pack cigarette tax would keep roughly 2 million youth from smoking and force 1.5 million smokers to quit.