WASHINGTON — President Bush, in a sharp confrontation with Congress, on Wednesday vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have dramatically expanded children's health insurance.
It was only the fourth veto of Bush's presidency, and one that some Republicans feared could carry steep risks for their party in next year's elections. The Senate approved the bill with enough votes to override the veto, but the margin in the House fell short of the required number.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., decried Bush's action as a "heartless veto."
"Never has it been clearer how detached President Bush is from the priorities of the American people," Reid said in a statement. "By vetoing a bipartisan bill to renew the successful Children's Health Insurance Program, President Bush is denying health care to millions of low-income kids in America. "
The White House sought little attention, with Bush casting his veto behind closed doors without any fanfare or news coverage. He was discussing it later Wednesday during a budget speech in Lancaster, Pa.
The State Children's Health Insurance Program is a joint state-federal effort that subsidizes health coverage for 6.6 million people, mostly children, from families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford their own private coverage.
The Democrats who control Congress, with significant support from Republicans, passed the legislation to add $35 billion over five years to allow an additional 4 million children into the program. It would be funded by raising the federal cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 per pack.
The president had promised to veto it, saying the Democratic bill was too costly, took the program too far from its original intent of helping the poor, and would entice people now covered in the private sector to switch to government coverage. He wants only a $5 billion increase in funding.
Bush argued that the congressional plan would be a move toward socialized medicine by expanding the program to higher-income families.
Democrats deny that, saying their goal is to cover more of the millions of uninsured children and noting that the bill provides financial incentives for states to cover their lowest-income children first. Of the over 43 million people nationwide who lack health insurance, over 6 million are under 18 years old. That's over 9 percent of all children.
Veto override considerations
Eighteen Republicans joined Democrats in the Senate, enough to override Bush's veto. But this was not the case in the House, where despite sizable Republican support, supporters of the bill are about two dozen votes short of a successful override.
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House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Democrats were imploring 15 House Republicans to switch positions but had received no agreements so far.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he was "absolutely confident" that the House would be able to sustain Bush's expected veto.
Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Congress should be able to reach a compromise with Bush once he vetoes the bill. "We should not allow it to be expanded to higher and higher income levels, and to adults. This is about poor children," he said. "But we can work it out."
It took Bush six years to veto his first bill, when he blocked expanded federal research using embryonic stem cells last summer. In May, he vetoed a spending bill that would have required troop withdrawals from Iraq. In June, he vetoed another bill to ease restraints on federally funded stem cell research.
In the case of the health insurance program, the veto is a bit of a high-stakes gambit for Bush, pitting him against both the Democrats who have controlled both houses of Congress since January, but also many members of his own party and the public.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched radio ads Monday attacking eight GOP House members who voted against the bill and face potentially tough re-election campaigns next year.
And Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said a coalition of liberal groups planned more than 200 events throughout the nation to highlight the issue.
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