WASHINGTON — President Bush is putting his fellow Republicans on a collision course with the American people, forcing them to choose between guns and butter.
In this newest example of a historic clash over priorities, Bush is asking Congress for $190 billion to keep financing the unpopular war in Iraq for another year and vowing to veto as early as Wednesday a bipartisan plan to spend an additional $35 billion over five years on health insurance for children.
Polls suggest that Bush's budget battle could be a loser for his party. Two new polls — one nonpartisan and one sponsored by a labor union — showed that solid U.S. majorities want to cut the financing for the war and increase spending on children's health insurance.
Democrats and allied interest groups know it. They're launching ad campaigns to increase pressure on Republican lawmakers in vulnerable seats to support the increased spending — or face great risk in next year's elections.
"This is a fight that Democrats ought to welcome, that Republicans ought to fear," Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said.
"The battle over spending priorities is the most important fight since the showdown over privatizing Social Security," said Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "I don't think we need to remind Bush who won that battle."
Bush's political motive is clear: He wants to restore his party's reputation as fiscally conservative after six years of letting domestic spending grow faster than it did under Democrat Bill Clinton.
Thus, a president who didn't veto a single spending bill in his first six years in office now vows to veto not only more spending for children's health insurance but nine other spending bills as well. Bush says Congress mustn't spend more on domestic programs than the $933 billion he requested for fiscal 2008. The Democratic-led Congress wants to spend $22 billion more than that — less than 1 percent of the federal budget. On this difference rests his nine-bill veto threat.
The American people seem to line up against Bush, particularly as he appears to link the two controversies by sending Congress his request to finance the Iraq war at the same time that he's vetoing the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
In a new ABC-Washington Post survey, 67 percent of the respondents said they wanted Congress to reduce the amount of money going to Iraq and Afghanistan, while 27 percent wanted lawmakers to approve Bush's spending request. At the same time, 72 percent said they wanted Congress to approve the additional spending on children's health insurance, while 25 percent opposed it.
Republicans at the White House and in the congressional leadership say there's no connection between spending on Iraq and on children's health insurance, and work to portray the children's bill as a partisan Democratic proposal.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, for example, said the proposal was put together without input from Republicans.
That isn't true. Senior Republicans such as Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and a fiscal conservative, and Orrin Hatch of Utah helped draft the bill, and 18 Republicans in the Senate and 45 in the House of Representatives voted for it.
Moreover, Grassley contests Bush's objections to the children's health insurance bill.
Pressure now mounts on Republicans who voted against the new spending but come from swing districts, where the idea of greater spending on health insurance for kids could be as popular with their constituents as it is nationally.
Health-insurance advocates need 25 more votes in the House to override a Bush veto. They have enough votes to override in the Senate if they hold every vote they collected at the measure's initial passage.
The Democrats' political operation for House candidates, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, began running radio ads this week in the districts of eight swing-district Republicans who voted against the measure. As many as 25 others could be targeted.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and another group, Americans United For Change, are launching a $3 million to $5 million ad campaign against other Republicans.
At the same time, Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said Tuesday that of eight House Democrats who'd opposed the measure and three others who didn't vote on it, five had now agreed to support it. Clyburn wouldn't disclose their names.
ARE BUSH'S POINTS VALID?
President Bush claims that the bipartisan bill to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program "would result in taking a program meant to help poor children and turning it into one that covers children in households with incomes up to $83,000 a year."
That's not true.
The bill maintains current law. It limits the program to children from families with incomes up to twice the federal poverty level — now $20,650 for a family of four, for a program limit of $41,300 — or to 50 percentage points above a state's Medicaid eligibility threshold, which varies state to state.
States that want to increase eligibility beyond those limits would require approval from Bush's Health and Human Services Department, just as they must win waivers now. The HHS recently denied a request by New York to increase its income threshold to four times the poverty level — the $82,600 figure that Republican opponents of the bill are using.
Under current law, nineteen states have won waivers from these income limits. The biggest was granted to New Jersey, which upped its income limit to 350 percent of the federal poverty level, or $72,275 for a family of four in 2007. The expanded SCHIP program retains the waiver option under federal discretion; it doesn't change it.
The president also claims that the proposal would cause some families to drop private coverage and enroll their children in the cheaper SCHIP program.
Peter Orszag, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, said that was inevitable to some degree when any government program expanded. The CBO estimates that the legislation would attract 5.8 million new enrollees by 2012. Of them, 3.8 million would be uninsured and eligible under current requirements, and 2 million probably would have had private coverage before the expansion.
That's a rate of about 1 in 3 new enrollees dropping private insurance. "We don't see very many other policy options that would reduce the number of uninsured children by the same amount without creating more" dropouts from private insurance, Orszag said.
Democrats are airing radio ads to pressure eight Republicans in the House of Representatives to support expanded spending for children's health insurance: Reps. Steve Chabot of Ohio, Thelma Drake of Virginia, Tom Feeney of Florida, Sam Graves of Missouri, Joe Knollenberg of Michigan, John "Randy" Kuhl of New York, James Saxton of New Jersey and Tim Walberg of Michigan.
ON THE WEB
Read an analysis of the proposal by FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project that monitors accuracy in U.S. politics, sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)