Democrats fall short on children's health insurance bill

WASHINGTON — Following a prolonged and contentious debate, House Democrats failed yet again Thursday to secure a veto-proof majority victory on legislation to expand health coverage for low-income children.

By a vote of 265-142, the House of Representatives passed a revised bill to reauthorize and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, but it fell seven votes shy of the 272 needed for a veto-proof two-thirds majority. Forty-three Republicans joined 222 Democrats in supporting the measure. Only one Democrat, Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia, opposed the measure.

Like the previous bill, the new legislation would increase program funding by $35 billion over five years and increase program enrollment to more than 10 million children.

President Bush, who vetoed nearly identical legislation three weeks ago, promised to veto the new legislation if it came to his desk. A White House policy statement characterized the bill as little different from the previous version.

The Bush administration had offered to negotiate with Democrats on the particulars of the bill, but would only support a program funding increase of $20 million over five years. Democrats ignored those overtures.

While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and top Democrats tried to put a positive face on the setback, Thursday's vote was an obvious disappointment and left the majority leadership vulnerable to criticism that their strategy of hastily crafting the legislation and then pushing for an immediate vote was flawed.

Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who both support the bill, had met with staff members for 38 GOP House members to address their concerns about the original legislation. Those meetings led to a number of minor changes in the new legislation that were designed to curry more GOP support.

The revised bill featured stronger language to prevent coverage of illegal immigrants, and it would prohibit federal SCHIP funds for children from families earning more than three times the federal poverty level, or $61,950 for a family of four. The bill also would move adults out of the program in one year rather than two.

But no GOP lawmakers switched their votes on Thursday to support the new legislation. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., switched his vote to oppose the measure, saying Democrats were too partisan. Last week, House Democrats fell 13 votes short of overriding the president's original veto.

"It's unfortunate that even after a week of meetings and adjustments to the bill at the Republicans' request they would still apparently prefer to play politics instead of reauthorizing a program the vast majority of the country supports," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.

Top Republicans had asked the Democratic leadership to postpone the vote until next week so that members could thoroughly read the 293-page legislation, which they first received on Wednesday evening.

Others, such as Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., sought a delay because many lawmakers were in California to review damage from the wildfires. In all, 10 Democrats and 16 Republicans didn't vote on the measure.

"While the principals and changes initially floated by the Democrat leadership seemed to be a legitimate effort to resolve outstanding issues, the introduction of bill language late last night and the decision to hold a vote today with no amendments allowed and no discussion with members who opposed the original bills is either incompetent or an intentional partisan maneuver," Wilson said after the vote.

House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said it was "appropriate and understandable" for members to be in their districts when emergencies arise, but he added that the legislative process shouldn't be stopped with time running out on an important piece of legislation. He said Democrats wanted to vote on the measure as soon as possible, in case Bush decided to wait and veto the measure if it passes both houses.

That could leave states without federal funding for the SCHIP program, which is operating under a temporary funding agreement that expires on Nov. 16 — the day Congress breaks for the holidays.

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said Republicans would "never allow SCHIP to collapse."

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a staunch critic of the legislation, said that the changes to the legislation were mostly cosmetic. "We've got a saying in Texas," Barton said. "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. This bill is still a pig."

Pelosi questioned whether the Republicans' concerns were legitimate. "Were these reasons why they didn't vote for the bill before, or were they excuses?" Pelosi said after the vote. " We'll soon find out as we continue to engage in conversation with them."

Democrats say the Senate, which has supported the legislation in the past, will consider the bill next week. The Senate could pass an amended version of the bill, which would bring it back to the House for another vote. Hoyer said Democrats will continue to work with Republicans to try and iron out their differences.