- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

The House easily passed a proposed expansion of a popular health care plan for millions of uninsured children Wednesday, providing President-elect Barack Obama with the possibility of signing bills to protect children and equal-pay rights for women during his first days in office.

The measure to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, passed by a vote of 289 to 139 — providing the incoming administration the first of what it hopes are many legislative victories on a path to universal health care coverage.

The House last week passed two pay-equity bills that would extend the time period in which women can file pay-discrimination lawsuits and would let them sue for more money while making companies meet higher standards to justify pay disparities. The Senate is scheduled to take up the measures Thursday, with a final vote expected later this week or next.

The SCHIP measure would provide $32.3 billion over 4 1/2 years to add an additional 4 million children to the 7 million already covered in the program.

The measure would increase the federal tax on cigarettes by 61 cents to a dollar a pack to pay for the program.

A similar Senate version is expected to pass soon after Tuesday’s inauguration.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called passing SCHIP a “monumental achievement for our children, for our country and certainly for this Congress.”

“This is only the beginning of change we will achieve with the new president,” the California Democrat added.

The Democrat-controlled Congress twice in 2007 passed measures to expand SCHIP by $35 billion over five years, to $60 billion. President Bush vetoed both bills, objecting because they were too costly, would cover some adults and children in middle-class families and would be paid for, in part, with an increase in the federal cigarette tax.

Mr. Obama said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

The most significant change from 2007 versions would allow states, at their choosing, to end the five-year waiting period for low-income, uninsured children who are legal residents.

Many Republicans complained that too many adults receive medical care under the program at the expense of children.

“This program ought to cover poor children first,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “Unfortunately, in many states, more than two-thirds of those enrolled in the SCHIP program are adults and there is nothing in this bill that ensures poor children will be brought into the program first.”

Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, accused Democrats of using SCHIP as a “political tool used to expand the federal bureaucracy and extend benefits to individuals who fall well outside of the bill’s original intent.”

Forty Republicans joined 249 Democrats in supporting the bill, while 139 Republicans and two Democrats voted no.

But Democrats said the Republican complaints were disingenuous, maintaining that under the bill no new waivers to cover parents of children that receive SCHIP benefits would be issued. And childless adults who are covered under the program no longer would be eligible.

Democrats also dismissed Republican claims that some illegal immigrants would be covered by the program.

“It’s fairy tale at best to claim that anyone who is here illegally would have a chance to qualify for these benefits,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

The initial 10-year authorization of the program expired in September 2007. Temporary funding extensions for the program expire at the end of March.

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