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 supporters of an override turned to the slowing economy as another reason to spend an additional $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 sufficient funding to ensure that the SCHIP program would continue through March 2009 for those currently enrolled. 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.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that the House would continue to focus on the program during the coming election year.
"This won't be your last opportunity this year to address this issue," Hoyer told lawmakers during the debate.
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.
In December, Bush for a second time vetoed a bill that would more than double spending on SCHIP. Bush said the bill would encourage too many families to replace private insurance with government-subsidized health coverage.
Lawmakers had sent the president a similar bill in October, which he vetoed. Democratic leaders fell 13 votes short in their previous override effort.
The children's health program serves families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private insurance.
"The bottom line is these kids need coverage," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who is chairman of a House health subcommittee. "SCHIP is the best way to handle it."
Both sides said they were willing to sit down after the vote in an effort to reach a compromise. Republicans contend that the current bill does not go far enough to prevent adults and illegal immigrants from getting health coverage through government programs.
But Democrats said such claims were greatly exaggerated. The bill maintains a prohibition on illegal immigrants participating in SCHIP.