The continuing conflict over legislation to extend the federal children's health insurance program sharpened this week as President Bush appeared to signal his intention to veto the bill and Senate Republicans told the administration to practice what it preaches when it comes to who is given health coverage under the program.
During a speech in Cleveland on Tuesday, President Bush said he would resist Congress' attempt to "federalize medicine." Mr. Bush has said putting an additional $35 billion into the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or S-CHIP — as the Senate is seeking to do — would open the door to increasing the number of people eligible for health coverage through the program.
The president did not actually use the word "veto" in that speech, and the White House is not officially saying whether he would strike down the bill, but it is clear the administration is taking a firm stand on its position.
"If such a massive expansion by the federal government control of health care were proposed, the president's senior advisers would certainly recommend a veto," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top-ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, called the veto talk premature. "It"s disappointing, even a little unbelievable, to hear talk about administration officials wanting a veto of a legislative proposal they haven't even seen yet," he said.
"What the administration needs to understand is that if a bipartisan plan isn't achieved, then the Democratic-controlled Congress will, at the very least, extend the current program with all the terrible policy provisions that have evolved, such as waivers for childless adults and coverage for higher-income kids," said Mr. Grassley.
The Senate bill will likely be introduced this week or next. Democrats on the committee have agreed to phase out coverage for adults under the program, which is about 600,000 people. The legislation would add about $35 billion, generated through an increase in the tobacco tax, to the S-CHIP program to cover an additional 2 million children. About 8 million children are without health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That would leave about 1 million children without health care coverage.
The president also would very much like to see tax reform included in the S-CHIP reauthorization bill, which he and other administration officials made clear only last month after proposing the idea in the State of the Union address in January. Although the president's proposal to level the playing field between the individual health insurance market and the employer-based system through tax deductions is a sound idea, it is late in the game.
"Like the president, we"d like to consider proposals to provide reform of the tax treatment of health care to increase coverage to tens of millions of Americans. Not taking that on is a missed opportunity, but it's not realistic — given the lack of bipartisan support for the president"s plan — to think that can be accomplished by next week or even before the current children"s health care program runs out in September," Mr. Grassley said.
Adding intrigue, leading Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee sent a letter to the president calling on the administration to stop the Department of Health and Human Services from giving states permission to cover adults under S-CHIP. The Republican senators contend that the extension of the waivers is one reason the program has reached beyond its original scope of coverage only children.
"The fact that the Department has approved these waivers in the past and has continued to extend them has complicated the reauthorization of the S-CHIP program. ... We believe it is time to do all we can to return S-CHIP to its original focus of covering low-income children," said Republican committee members Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Mr. Grassley.
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