WASHINGTON — Under pressure to help override President Bush's veto, at least five of the eight House Democrats who voted initially against expanding a popular children's health insurance program now say they'll switch sides.
In behind-the-scenes conversations, Democratic leaders pressed Reps. Jim Marshall of Georgia, Betty Castor of Florida, Bob Etheridge and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Baron Hill of Indiana, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Gene Taylor of Mississippi to reconsider their positions on the $35 billion spending increase for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, commonly known as SCHIP.
Despite reservations, Castor, Boren, Hill, McIntyre and Etheridge said they'd support a veto override.
"After careful consideration, I have decided to vote to override the president's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program," Etheridge said Wednesday. "I remain concerned that a tobacco-tax increase could harm North Carolina's rural economy."
The House is to vote Thursday on whether to override Bush's veto of the legislation, which would add millions of children to the nearly 7 million who receive government-provided health insurance because their families have difficulty buying private coverage. Bush said the plan was too costly, and many observers expect his veto to stand.
A bipartisan group from the Senate Finance Committee reached out to the Democratic holdouts urging them not to be swayed by arguments that expanding the program would mean covering middle-income children and adults and illegal immigrants.
"It's now coming down to the wire and I think the pressure this time is enormous," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington think tank. "The Democrats feel as if this issue will work clearly to their advantage."
Meanwhile, back in the lawmakers' home districts, groups like Blue America and BlogPAC called more than 40,000 households and bought radio and newspapers ads in an attempt to pressure the Democratic lawmakers into supporting an override of the president's veto. The groups' efforts echoed those of Democratic organizations, advocacy groups and labor unions as they mounted a $1 million national campaign that targeted three dozen Republican lawmakers.
"We're trying to augment what the Democrats were doing," said Howie Klein, treasurer of Blue America, a group of politically active bloggers. "We felt there was a little bit of hypocrisy in the Democrats' tactics. Here they were with this expensive campaign to draw attention to Republicans that voted against the bill, but no one was saying anything about the Democrats who voted against it."
Many of the eight Democratic lawmakers hail from politically conservative districts or tobacco-producing regions, where backing SCHIP expansion through a 61-cent-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes might not sit well with voters or campaign donors, Mann said. Boren represents a rural congressional district that is one of the poorest in the nation, and the state has the nation's third-highest smoking rate, according a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At least two of the eight, Taylor of Mississippi and Marshall of Georgia — who's one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the nation and will likely face a contentious re-election fight next year — have said they will not change their positions on the current version of the SCHIP bill.
"Jim is unlikely to change his vote, the underlying bill hasn't changed," said Doug Moore, a spokesman for Marshall. "This is an issue that has inspired a lot of emotion and strong feelings. It's extremely unlikely that the president's veto will be overridden. If it isn't, we're going to go back to the drawing board and help draft a bill we can support."