President Bush said yesterday that Democrats are taking steps to socialize medicine in the United States and vowed to veto a bill that would extend a health insurance program for low-income children to some middle-class families.
Mr. Bush cast his opposition to Democrats' plan to triple funding for the $25 billion State Children's Health Insurance Program as part of "a philosophical divide" between Democrats and Republicans.
"Democratic leaders in Congress want to put more power in the hands of government by expanding federal health care programs," Mr. Bush said. "I have a different view. I believe the best approach is to put more power in the hands of individuals by empowering people and their doctors to make health care decisions that are right for them."
The president said he approves of increasing SCHIP's federal funding by $5 billion, a 20 percent increase. But he opposes both the Senate version's $35 billion increase and the House's $50 billion increase. Congressional negotiators are resolving those differences in a conference committee.
The federal government "should work to make basic private health insurance affordable and accessible for all Americans," said Mr. Bush, who called on Democrats to alter and enact legislation before SCHIP funding expires Sept. 30.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, called Mr. Bush's veto threat "a cruel threat to needy children."
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, argued that the legislation would "continue to cover the 6 million children who currently participate in the program, and an additional 4 million eligible kids who today have none."
"The question before the president really comes down to this: Will you stand with American children who through no fault of their own are uninsured, or will you go back on your own campaign promise and deny them coverage?" Mr. Hoyer said.
Mr. Bush and congressional Republican leaders accused Democrats, by delaying passage of the bill, of "putting health coverage for poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington."
"Time is running out for the SCHIP program and yet the majority seems intent on putting politics before the needs of low-income children," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. "Congress should focus on providing health care to low-income children and work toward a common-sense, bipartisan solution."
Republicans have proposed more consumer choice and flexibility with their health care plans through tax credits or refunds, the ability to transfer policies from job to job, tax-free savings accounts for out-of-pocket medical costs and other means.
Former presidential adviser Karl Rove outlined these policies in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this week and said Republicans should make health care a "centerpiece issue" in the 2008 election. SCHIP may prove to be the first fight for Republicans trying to portray Democrats as big-government proponents and tax-and-spenders heading into next year's presidential election.
Mr. Bush said yesterday that he is a "strong asset" to Republican candidates in the race, although those candidates have tried to distance themselves from the president.
The president said candidates who campaign on promises to give U.S. intelligence agencies the "tools necessary to protect us" and to keep taxes low will do well. He also said that candidates should talk about "helping these Iraqis realize the benefits of democracy."
Mr. Bush also commented on the New York Police Department's denial of a request by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit ground zero. "I can understand why they would not want somebody who's running a country who's a state sponsor of terror down there at the site," Mr. Bush said.
•Sean Lengell contributed to this report.