Supporters of children's insurance bill make final push to overturn veto

WASHINGTON — Before the House of Representatives tries on Thursday to override President Bush's controversial veto of expanded health coverage for low-income children, supporters of the measure are making a final hard push to change the minds and votes of GOP lawmakers who back the president's position.

On Tuesday night, supporters held 275 vigils at local congressional offices across the country. Advocacy groups such as The Children's Defense Fund and Families USA are providing "talking points" for voters who want to contact their representatives.

Radio and television attack ads are airing in the districts of GOP lawmakers who opposed the bill.

"I've never seen such enthusiasm for any bill," said Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA.

While few expect the grass-roots effort to overturn the president's veto, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she's "hopeful and prayerful" that a few Republicans will switch their votes on Thursday and support the measure, which increases funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years.

If the veto is upheld as expected, Pelosi said lawmakers won't forget the 10 million youngsters who would have received health insurance if the bill had become law.

"These 10 million children will not be left behind by us. We will continue the fight until we have at least 10 million insured," Pelosi said Tuesday on Capitol Hill. She was flanked by dozens of supporters, including Grammy Award-winning singer Paul Simon, who lent his star power to the eleventh-hour effort.

Simon co-founded The Children's Health Fund, which has paid for 1.2 million doctor visits for low-income children since 1987. He said the president's veto "appears to be a heartless act." He called on GOP lawmakers to re-examine their consciences "to find the compassion in your heart for our most vulnerable and sweetest citizens, our children."

"I am asking you to change your vote," Simon said. "If you do, I believe it will be the one of the proudest days of your lives."

The House previously approved the bill 265-159, with 45 Republicans voting for the measure. After persuading other Democrats who opposed the measure to support it, Democrats said they need about 15 Republicans to switch their votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed to override the president's veto. The Senate has passed the measure by a veto-proof majority.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he didn't believe any of the lobbying efforts would affect Thursday's vote. He and Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said they expect the veto to be upheld.

Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., has been targeted with attack ads, but he said he wouldn't change his vote.

"I'm going to be standing firm and supporting the president's veto," Keller said, repeating a GOP theme that the SCHIP program should take care of poor children first.

The SCHIP program was established in 1997 to help cover children whose families earned up to twice the federal poverty level. That's the equivalent of $41,300 for a family of four. These families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford insurance in the private market.

While the SCHIP program covers 6.6 million youngsters, some 9 million American youngsters are still without health coverage.

The SCHIP bill would increase program funding by $35 billion, bringing total spending to $60 billion over five years. The money wouldn't come from general tax revenues, but from steep tax increases on tobacco products, including a 61-cent-per-pack increase for cigarettes.

Bush wants to expand the program by $1 billion a year, bringing total spending to $30 billion over five years. But that amount is insufficient to maintain current program levels and would cause more than 800,000 children to be dropped from the program, said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who helped draft the bipartisan bill.

Hatch said he would work toward a compromise with the White House, but he added that it would be difficult to do since the final proposal is already a compromise between Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., already has said that he's unwilling to change the bill, but Pelosi hasn't ruled it out.

"We'll see how that works out," said Blunt, the Republican House whip.

Bush said he's willing to provide more money for the program, but only if the legislation maintains new requirements that make it harder for states to cover children from higher-earning families. The president is concerned that some of these parents will drop their children's private insurance for cheaper coverage through SCHIP.

The SCHIP program hasn't been reauthorized, but a temporary federal funding agreement allows states to continue their programs through Nov. 16. If a new agreement isn't extended beyond that date, 17 states could face shortfalls, according to the Congressional Research Service. Those states are Alaska, California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

State officials are making contingency plans, including preparing termination notices. "I don't know of any state going down that route, but they are preparing just in case they have to," said Martha Roherty, the director of the National Association of State Medicaid Directors.

If states do face shortfalls, they can switch some SCHIP enrollees into the Medicaid program. But some may not qualify because their family income level may be too high.