WASHINGTON – For the second time in three months, the House failed Wednesday to override President Bush's veto of a bill that would greatly increase spending on a popular children's health insurance program.
Democratic leaders fell 15 votes shy of obtaining the two-thirds majority needed for an override. The final vote was 260-152, with 42 Republicans siding with Democrats.
The result was expected, even as override supporters pointed to the slowing economy as another reason to spend another $35 billion on the State Children's Health Insurance Program over the next five years.
"Hardworking American families are struggling and in dire need of assistance," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
But Republicans held strong in their opposition to the spending increase. They said Congress had already set aside enough funding to ensure that current SCHIP enrollees could continue their health coverage through March 2009. They criticized Democrats for delaying an override vote to coincide more closely with next week's State of the Union address from President Bush.
"I think it's important to highlight that this is simply a political exercise," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
The legislation that Bush vetoed would have increased enrollment in the children's health program from 6 million to 10 million over the coming five years. The revenue needed for that enrollment increase would come from a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on a pack of cigarettes, as well as comparable tax increases on other tobacco products.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said President Bush strongly supports reauthorizing the program, but that long-term extension has to put poor children first.
"He is pleased the House of Representatives voted today to sustain his veto of misguided legislation that would have expanded SCHIP to higher income households while increasing taxes," Perino said.
The president's second veto occurred in December. He said the bill encouraged too many families to replace private insurance with government-subsidized health coverage. He vetoed a similar bill in October. Democratic leaders then fell 13 votes short in their attempt to override that particular veto, so they actually lost ground Wednesday.
The children's health program serves families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private insurance.
Several Democrats cited the economy in arguing for the override, which was a new tack from previous SCHIP debates.
"The issue comes down to what is happening in America's households today. Unemployment is up, housing starts are down. The price of gasoline and food and health care is up, the stock market is down," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Pelosi said those indicators required Congress to take a new direction.
But Republicans said expanding SCHIP was not an economic stimulus.
"We don't want to squander money to pay for health insurance for those who can afford it themselves," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, said Republicans wanted to save money on SCHIP to pay for an economic stimulus, but didn't have a similar rule for spending on Iraq.
"It's amazing how frugal they are when they want to be," Green said.
Both sides said they were willing to sit down after the vote to try to reach a compromise. Republicans contend the current bill does not go far enough to prevent adults and illegal immigrants from getting health coverage through SCHIP.
But Democrats said such claims were greatly exaggerated. The bill maintains a prohibition on illegal immigrants participating in Medicaid and SCHIP, but Republicans objected to letting some participants into the program based on a Social Security number rather than through an original birth certificate or passport.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would continue to focus on expanding SCHIP during the coming election year.
"This won't be your last opportunity this year to address this issue," Hoyer told lawmakers during the debate.