GOP Lawmakers Fear Backlash from SCHIP Veto

This week, President Bush is expected to veto legislation that would add $35 billion to the State Children's Health Insurance Program. That's causing problems for vulnerable Republicans in Congress, who fear being on the wrong side of a popular issue.

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm James Hattori.

Health care is high on the list of voter's priorities, and health care for children is really hitting home. President Bush and the Congress are battling over the State Children's Health Insurance Program known as SCHIP. The president says he'll veto the funding bill because it costs too much and it covers children and families, which are too wealthy.

Democrats think they're in a win-win situation. They can either override the veto or use the issue as a surefire vote getter. Some Republicans fear the Democrats are right.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: No congressional leaders think they have a winner of a bill when they hold a formal ceremony for the normally mundane action of signing it and sending it to the White House. Yet that's exactly what Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did on Friday morning just hours after the Senate proved the measure by the veto proof vote of 67-29.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): There are 10 million reasons why the president should sign this legislation. They are represented here by the children of America who are with us. On their behalf, I am honored to sign the State Children's Health Insurance Program and send it to the president.

ROVNER: That 10 million is a reference to the number of children who'd be cover under the bill, about four million more than the current level. To put a little more pressure on President Bush, Democrats also brought along 12-year-old Graeme Frost(ph). He's a Maryland SCHIP recipient, who needed the program after he was in a serious car wreck. Frost also delivered the Democrat's weekly radio address.

Mr. GRAEME FROST (Recipient, State Children's Health Insurance Program): I don't know why President Bush wants to stop kids who really need held for getting CHIP. All I know is I have some really good doctors. They took great care of me when I was sick, and I'm glad I could see them because of the Children's Health Program. I just hope the President will listen to my story and help other kids to be as lucky as me.

ROVNER: That kind of rhetoric left White House Press Secretary Dana Perino want a defense of it Friday's briefing.

Ms. DANA PERINO (White Press Secretary): I think it is preposterous for people to suggest that the president of the United States doesn't care about children, that he wants the children to suffer.

ROVNER: Health the Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt in a call with reporters Friday afternoon, managed to be a bit more substantive about why the president won't sign the bill. He thinks it would give government health care to too many children who might otherwise have private coverage and that could be the beginning of a government takeover of the health care system.

Professor JACK PITNEY (American Politics, Claremont McKenna College): But we do not believe that SCHIP should be the vehicle to pull the train of National Health Insurance.

ROVNER: But political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says the president maybe threading on some dangerous political ground.

Prof. PITNEY: After being beaten up for years by conservatives on the increase on the federal budget, the president had decided to draw a line on the sand. Unfortunately, Republicans are looking at the sand and reading the words - you lose.

ROVNER: That's because expanding government health insurance for children is supported by large majorities of voters including a majority of Republicans. That helps explain why 18 Senate Republicans including all eight, whose seats are considered vulnerable next year, voted for the bill. Susan Collins of Maine was one of them.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): It's hard for me to understand why anyone would vote against an extension and modest expansion of what has been such a highly successful and effective program.

ROVNER: In the House, 45 Republicans broke ranks with their leaders and the president and voted for the bill. It's not enough to override the veto - yet. But Democrats and interest groups are launching a series of print and broadcast advertising campaigns and rallies. Tomorrow, children will march to the White House pulling red wagons full of petitions to keep the heat on.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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