WASHINGTON – Politics have turned ugly over renewal of a government health insurance program for children that most lawmakers and the Bush administration support in theory, yet faces a veto and Republican opposition in the House.
House Democrats on Wednesday pushed through rules for the debate on the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill, 222-197. Republicans agreed to stop procedural blocks after getting an extra hour to debate the legislation.
But Republicans sharply criticized the process, saying Democrats devised the rules in the dark of night to prevent objections to an unfunded mandate in the legislation.
The bickering devolved into shouting across the House floor Tuesday evening when Republican Rep. Lee Terry told Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner to "shut up" after Weiner yelled, "We can't trust you," while House Minority Leader John Boehner spoke in opposition to the debate rules.
Democratic members were taunting Boehner as he discussed why Republicans had launched a protest to the manner in which the legislation is being pushed through the chamber. House Majority Leader Stony Hoyer reprimanded his caucus by forcefully shushing members and declaring both sides out of order. Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona characterized the antics by saying the chamber had turned "into the House of Commons."
Rep. David Obey, D-Was., chairman of the Appropriations Committee who was leading the debate over an unrelated agriculture spending bill used by Republicans to launch the protest, demanded order during the "non-sensical" session, but he was unsuccessful in stopping procedural protests that forced the body to recess for the night.
Republicans had vowed to hold up consideration of all legislation, including the agriculture spending bill, to protest the maneuvers used to get the SCHIP bill to the floor. Democrats came back overnight with restricted rules for debate of the agriculture bill that fell victim to GOP delay tactics.
"This is not the U.S. Senate where anything is possible," Obey said of the Republican tactics.
GOP lawmakers are peeved that the SCHIP legislation includes a tax increase on tobacco to pay for the measure, and they object to the impact of the legislation on people enrolled in Medicare Advantage, among other issues.
One beef Republicans have is that the tax increase included in the SCHIP bill, as currently written, was not subject to a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over changes to the tax code.
Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee also pounded their Democratic counterparts for waiving certain rules regarding the committee's unsuccessful mark-up of the insurance bill last week. At that meeting, Republicans led by ranking member Rep. Joe Barton prevailed in their attempt to protest the bill by making the committee clerk read the 482-page bill.
As for House floor debate, the rules provide two hours of debate, prevent all but a few limited points of order against consideration of the bill and strip individual amendments.
On Wednesday, the White House said that President Bush would veto the $75 billion House legislation that is more than 20 percent over the president's request and would be funded by a 61 cents-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes. The Senate bill costs $60 billion.
The reasons given for the veto threat include billions in Medicare cuts, tax increases on low-income Americans, expansion of federal spending and subsidies to "children" up to 25 years old, provisions to aid illegal immigrants, a lack of anti-fraud provisions, a shift from private to government-subsidized health care and limits on care for unborn children.
"The legislation is structured in a way that clearly favors government-run health care over private health insurance. The result of this approach would be a dramatic encroachment of government-run health care resulting in lower quality and fewer choices, which the American people have repeatedly rejected," the White House said in an official statement of administration policy.
"It transforms the program into an effectively unlimited entitlement program that reaches far beyond the targeted population of poor children, and applies growth rates that are both far in excess of health care inflation and the aggressive expansion of programs by states. At a time when the Medicare program has an unfunded 75-year obligation of $34 trillion, Social Security has an unfunded 75-year obligation of $7 trillion, and the Medicaid program is consuming an ever-increasing share of Federal resources, it is unwise to expand the government’s unfunded obligations," the statement reads.
House Democrats say the bill will continue coverage for 6.6 million children currently enrolled in the program plus another 5.5 million without insurance.
Despite the fighting and procedural moves in the House, the bill likely will pass in that chamber. Home-state politics have left the Senate poised to pass the legislation with some bipartisan support. Senate Republican leaders are now trying to line up the 34 votes needed to sustain the president's veto.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the party whip, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are offering a $33 billion alternative that would limit eligibility for the program to those it was originally designed to cover — people at 200 percent of poverty, or $41,300 for a family of four.
"I thought this was the United States Senate, and if it is the United States Senate — which I have my doubts about — you vote against a program, even if it means more money for your state, if it's bad," Lott said Tuesday. "But I don't think we do that anymore."
Two GOP amendments were turned back during Wednesday's Senate debate: one Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N. H., that would have cut federal payments for middle-income children and childless adults; and another by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., to shift the bill's $35 billion SCHIP increase, financed through a tobacco tax hike, into treating diseases like cancer and heart disease.
FOX News' Molly Hooper contributed to this report.