Friday, July 27, 2007

House Republicans yesterday accused Democrats of trying to ram through a $50 billion expansion of a children’s health insurance program without their input or adequate time for debate.

Republicans complained they received copies of the 465-page Children’s Health and Medicare Protection Act on Wednesday — one day before two House committees were scheduled to vote on whether to allow the bill to be heard on the full House floor.

“I don’t think we should be voting on anything that we don’t know what the ramifications will be,” said Rep. Edward Whitfield, Kentucky Republican, at a markup of the bill yesterday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the committee’s ranking Republican, complained that Democrats allowed no legislative hearings, subcommittee markups and “no flow of information” regarding the Democrat-crafted bill.

To protest the Democrats’ handling of the bill, Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which also was marking up the bill yesterday, refused to agree to a customary waiver of the reading of the bill — a procedure that took nearly three hours before Republicans agreed to proceed with the markup.

Democrats say Republican concerns ring hollow because they started complaining about the bill days before it was released.

Democrats added that with the monthlong August recess one week away, it’s important to move quickly on reauthorizing the 10-year-old children’s insurance program, which expires Sept. 30.

“We’re going to get complaints from the other side of the aisle [and] I don’t blame them,” said Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat and chairman of Ways and Means health subcommittee. “It’s no fun being in the minority — and I’ve got 12 years of empathy.”

But a senior Republican Capitol Hill aide said their is a “great possibility” the party will successfully delay a vote on the bill until September.

The bill’s key sticking point is the Democrats’ plan for a $50 million spending increase over five years for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP — a joint federal-state partnership that subsidizes the cost of insuring children living in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance.

Democrats say the spending increase will add an estimated 5 million children to the 6 million already enrolled in the program.

To pay for the plan, a 45-cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase has been proposed, which Democrats say would raise about $27 billion.

“The fact that the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world is home to millions of children who don’t have health insurance is something that should cause us to hang our collective head in shame,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat and vice chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “There is no question that this investment will save our government untold millions, perhaps billions, in the future.”

Democrats have proposed lowering payments to many insurance plans participating in the Medicare Advantage program, a program that provides health care services for rural seniors and minority communities across the nation, a move that also would save billions of dollars.

Republican leaders say the Democrats’ plan unnecessarily pits children against seniors by making deep cuts in Medicare Advantage. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill on the grounds it’s too costly.

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