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Bush veto: a curse or blessing for Republicans?

Nancy Peosi
House Speaker Pelosi said that if President Bush vetoes an expansion of the children's health insurance program, "this legislation will haunt him again and again."Susan Walsh / AP file
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“The problem for President Bush is that he doesn’t personalize what’s going on.”

So said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., as he appeared with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a press conference Tuesday to rally support for the five-year, $60 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Bush has vowed to veto the expansion of the program.

And it looks like he'll have the support he needs to make his veto stick: in a vote Tuesday night, the House fell 19 votes short of a veto-proof majority. It takes a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress to override a veto.

The Democrats know how to personalize what’s going on” — and that’s why the real stars of Tuesday’s Pelosi event were not Pelosi and Pallone, but Bonnie Frost and her daughter Gemma, from Baltimore, Md. who were injured in a car accident three years ago and are among the 6.6 million children and teenagers and about 600,000 adults covered by CHIP.

“I say to the president, ‘Please don’t veto this bill’” Pelosi said as she stood next to Gemma and Bonnie.

Asked how she intended to keep people mobilized to support the bill after Bush vetoes it, Pelosi said, “We’re depending on Gemma to help us do that ... And Bonnie. They’ll be on TV later today.”

In the vote Tuesday night, 45 Republicans sided with almost all of the House Democrats to pass the expansion of the program. The final tally was 265 to 160, but that was 19 votes short of what Pelosi needed.

Among the Republicans voting to expand the program were some in races rated as competitive by the non-partisan Cook Political Report : Reps. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, Jim Walsh of New York, and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

Also voting against the bill were eight Democrats, including tobacco state Democrats such as Reps. Mike McIntyre and Bob Etheridge, both from North Carolina. The bill would pay for expanding insurance coverage by imposing a 61-cent increase in the 39-cent per pack federal cigarette tax, which amounts to a 156 percent tax increase

Pelosi said earlier in the day, “This fight will not end this week or next. If the president says ‘veto, I forbid ten million children in America to have health care,' this legislation will haunt him again and again and again ... We’ll be seeing Gemma again.”

But House Republican Whip Roy Blunt made the GOP argument that the bill over-expands CHIP, extending to middle-class people who could afford to pay for their own insurance.

Jibe at Pelosi's wealth
“If you’re Nancy Pelosi, almost every kid is a poor kid, compared to your kid,” Blunt cracked, alluding to Pelosi’s family wealth.

He told reporters, “If Democrats send this bill back a second time (after a veto), that actually might be good for us, because people are going to know more about what’s in the bill ... We would probably benefit from this bill going to the president multiple times.”

What Blunt and Bush object to is the expansion of CHIP to families that are middle income, or 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

For a family of four, 300 percent of the poverty level would be $61,842.

Blunt also raised the politically inflammable issue of illegal immigrants potentially getting benefits from the bill.

It has, he argued “no real test for whether people are legally in the country ... Several of our members at home find that is an important point to stress. All of the verifications (of legal residency) we think need to be in the system were taken out.”

Responding to this argument during the debate on the House floor, Rep. Jim McGovern, D- Mass., pointed to a provision in the bill that says, “Nothing in this act allows federal payment for individuals who are not legal residents.”

And McGovern lashed out at Republicans saying, “Immigrant bashing is the last bastion of the politically desperate.”

In a purely electoral sense, Blunt might have a point that some GOP House members wouldn’t necessarily mind voting again and again on the bill.

There are GOP members who’ll vote for it and can argue in their campaign ads: “I voted for kids’ health insurance seven times.”

In districts where Bush is especially unpopular, this could be useful strategy for 2008.

An easy vote for one GOP member
“It’s an easy one for me, I’m voting ‘yes,’” said Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash.  He voted against the original House version which included a $200 billion cut in a program called Medicare Advantage.

The current bill dropped that cut.

“I’ve always had no problem at all with a cigarette tax, although the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) robo-calls indicated that I sided with the big tobacco companies over children’s heath care,” Reichert said. “Since my grandfather, my father, and my uncle, all died of emphysema; they could tax the hell out of cigarettes for all I care.”

The votes allow GOP members in tight races next year to taken an anti-Bush posture.

Reichert, for example, won last November with just 51 percent and faces another daunting re-election battle next year.

“I think it’s wrong that he veto this bill. It should move forward and become law,” Reichert said.

As often happens in Congress, there was an element of charade to Tuesday’s scrimmaging.

On Wednesday the House will vote on a temporary spending measure that will include a stopgap extension of CHIP.

“We get tomorrow to extend the current program for kids. So all of our (GOP) members will go home saying ‘Look I voted this week to extend the current program for kids who are at 200 percent of poverty or below.’” Blunt said confidently.

'A heavy lift' to over-ride Bush
“Getting to a veto-proof majority is an extremely heavy lift,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., one of the Republicans who is urging her GOP colleagues to vote for the bill.

The objections to the bill among GOP members, Wilson said, depend on the district. For some, it’s the big hike in taxes on smokers. “North Carolina guys — that’s an issue for them,” Wilson said. “And some folks have taken pledges about being against taxes — no matter what they are.”

But Wilson’s view is that “this is a good bill. It is not a great bill, but we need to compromise. I just think we should get pragmatic and get things done.”

Like Reichert, Wilson had a tough time surviving last year: she won by only 861 votes out of more than two million cast.