- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

Democratic proposals to significantly expand a health care plan for low-income children have stalled over a dispute on whether to pay for the program with cuts to Medicare.

The disagreement raises the possibility of lawmakers having to pass a temporary funding extension for the State Children”s Health Insurance Program, which expires Sept. 30.

Both houses of Congress last month passed bills to extend the popular 10-year-old SCHIP program.

The House measure calls for lowering payments to many insurance plans participating in the Medicare Advantage program, which provides health care services for rural seniors and minority communities. The cuts would save billions of dollars.

The Senate version calls for no Medicare cuts.

Senate Republicans have shown little desire for a bill that includes Medicare cuts.

“The House bill is more expensive by billions of dollars and contains cuts to Medicare Advantage — both of those items are poison pills for some Senate Republicans,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

Many Republicans say linking Medicare cuts to a bill intended to provide care for children is inappropriate.

“This [House] bill pits seniors against kids, which I find to be extremely cynical in a policy-making process,” said Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican.

But House Democratic leaders have refused to budge, touting their bill on the grounds it would cover more children.

“I said that when we passed that bill, it would be the children’s hour for the Congress of United States,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

House Democrats add they have little incentive to compromise because House Republicans have given no indication they would support a Democratic-crafted bill even if it didn’t include Medicare cuts.

“This is a complete red herring for House Republicans to talk about wanting Medicare cuts taken out of the bill,” a House Democratic aide said.

House leaders say they’re determined to send a comprehensive bill to President Bush before funding for the program expires at the end of the month.

“This is just too important of an issue to let it lapse,” the House Democratic aide said.

Republicans, however, have expressed less urgency to broker a quick deal.

“If we don’t get it done by the end of the month, we’ll just pass an extension and deal with it later in the year,” a Senate Republican aide said. “It’s no big deal — it’s done all the time.”

Even if the Medicare cuts were stripped from the final version, the measure still faces a veto threat from the White House, which has objected to the bills’ hefty cost increases.

“It would remove one flaw, but there are lots of others,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.

The House bill calls for a $50 billion spending increase for the program over five years, for a total of about $75 billion. To help pay for the plan, Democrats proposed a 45-cent per-pack cigarette-tax increase.

The Senate version would spend an additional $35 billion over five years and cover about 3 million children not currently enrolled. It calls for a 61-cent per-pack cigarette-tax increase.

c Staff writer Gregory Lopes contributed to this article.

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