WASHINGTON — Democrats on Wednesday seized control of President Bush's veto of expanded children's health insurance coverage, making clear that they plan to use it as a political hammer against vulnerable Republicans, especially those who need support from moderate voters to win in next year's elections.
Hours after Bush vetoed legislation to renew and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the Democrats who control Congress said they'd schedule a vote for Oct. 18 in the House of Representatives to try to override the president.
Between now and then, a two-week wave of advertising and rallies are aimed, at least officially, at pressuring 15 to 20 more House Republicans to support the override. Some 45 House Republicans already had joined the 265-159 majority that approved the measure last week.
Democrats are also quietly prodding 11 of their own who voted against the bill or missed the first vote. All told, Democrats need to pick up 25 more votes to override Bush's veto.
However, if their override effort falls short of the two-thirds majority needed — as many Republicans predict, and some Democrats privately agree — that could put even more momentum behind the Democrats' drive to make this a major 2008 campaign issue, one that Democrats think will hurt several GOP presidential hopefuls as well as House incumbents who stand with Bush.
Here's a sample of the rhetoric that Democrats can hit veto defenders with: Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Bush "is turning a deaf ear to the crying health care needs of children. The president should not be so heartless when it comes to the children of America."
Surveys show that renewing and expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program to cover nearly 4 million more children enjoys wide public support among Republican voters as well as Democrats. The veto has isolated the president politically from many members of his party, 43 Democratic and Republican governors and more than 300 child advocacy, health industry, religious and civic groups that support the measure.
The Democratic National Committee wasted no time in turning the veto into a weapon: As Rudy Giuliani, who leads Republican presidential candidates in national polls, campaigned Wednesday in New Hampshire, the DNC blasted out a release declaring that the "Giuliani-backed Veto Denies New Hampshire Kids Health Care."
DNC Chairman Howard Dean sent party donors an e-mail with a photograph of a distraught-looking young girl in a hospital gown. Dean wrote: "What makes this veto worse is that George Bush will spend billions of dollars in Iraq, some of it on contractors like Blackwater and Halliburton, while denying millions of children needed doctors' visits or medicine here at home. On top of that, all of the Republican candidates for president support his veto."
Many Democratic presidential candidates issued statements condemning the veto.
Meanwhile, a national coalition of anti-war and labor groups announced plans for protests in front of 200 congressional offices across the country.
"I know that the Republicans have made it a priority to go down with the president on this issue," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said. "I think that the president will find himself isolated on it, whether we override or not."
The SCHIP program was established in 1997 to help cover children whose families earned up to twice the federal poverty level. Medicaid and SCHIP have helped cut the uninsured rate for low-income children by about a third, but some 9 million youngsters remain without health coverage.
The bill Bush vetoed would cover an additional 3.8 million uninsured youths by 2012 and increase overall program enrollment from 6.6 million youngsters to more than 10 million. It would have boosted SCHIP funding by $35 billion over five years, to $60 billion, through steep tax increases on cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Bush had proposed increasing SCHIP funding by $5 billion over five years — about 36 percent of what the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says is needed to preserve current program levels.
In a statement sent to the House of Representatives, Bush said that while he supports the SCHIP program, he vetoed the bill expanding it "because this legislation would move health care in this country in the wrong direction." He said it would have expanded the program to cover children from wealthier families and would have displaced private insurance for many.
The president also has argued that Democrats were using the expansion as the first step toward government-funded health coverage for all Americans; Bush favors relying on the private sector.
A temporary funding agreement keeps the expiring SCHIP program afloat through Nov. 16.
Ed Gillespie, the president's counselor, suggested there might be room to compromise. "If there is a question as to whether or not the 20 percent increase in funding that he has proposed to increase in SCHIP funding would not cover the children that the program intends to cover, he is open to talking about how much more it would take to do that," Gillespie said.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said recently that a Bush veto would leave no room for compromise.
House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that the Democrats' delay of an override vote serves "to underscore the fact that Democrats are more concerned with partisan politics than they are with expanding health care access for low-income children."
But House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said, "This veto marks the death knell for compassionate conservatism."
The veto was just Bush's fourth after nearly seven years in office — and it left dozens of Republicans who support the expansion confused and frustrated.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Bush had gotten "bad advice" and that the legislation was "the morally right thing to do."
"I hope we can muster enough votes to overturn his veto," Hatch said.
Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., who stood by Bush's veto, said the expansion was bad policy, political correctness aside.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and other Democrats said that compared to runaway spending on the Iraq war, keeping working-class children healthy would have been money well spent. "They don't start wars. They don't get the nation in trouble. They're just kids," Rockefeller said.
ON THE WEB
For Bush's views, go to the White House Web site and scroll down the right side.
The Congressional Budget Office has www.cbo.gov/publications/collections/schip.cfminformation on the costs of the SCHIP renewal legislation.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has background information on the SCHIP and Medicaid program.
Go to FactCheck.org to assess the president's claims about the SCHIP legislation.
(Renee Schoof contributed.)