President Bush vetoed a bipartisan bill on Wednesday that would have expanded a popular health insurance program for poor children, saying it pushed the country toward national health care and carried an excessively high price tag.
Some of the president's biggest opponents on this issue are Republicans, and a serious attempt to override the veto is expected later this month.
For weeks, President Bush has been promising to veto the State Children's Health Insurance Program, and yesterday he made good on that pledge. But there was no ceremony to mark the occasion — a sign of just how politically sensitive a veto of the SCHIP bill is. The legislation won bipartisan support in Congress, and polls show the public is overwhelmingly on the side of the bill's supporters.
President Explains Veto
The president's first comments on the matter came Wednesday morning in Lancaster, Pa., at a town hall-style meeting on the broad topic of fiscal responsibility.
The president told the group that it is right to help poor children, but he said some people were using this bill as a step toward federalized health care. He said the SCHIP bill went too far.
"Here's the thing, just so you know, this program expands coverage, federal coverage, up to families earning $83,000 a year," he said. "That doesn't sound poor to me. The intent of the program was to focus on poor children, not adults or families earning up to $83,000 a year."
Supporters Refute Claim
But supporters of the bill immediately seized on that claim and said it was not true. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a loyal supporter of the Bush White House, responded angrily to the president during a Capitol Hill news conference.
"Are families of four making $83,000 going to get benefit(s) under this? Not unless the administration agrees to it. This bill does not call for that high level of expenditure," Hatch said.
Hatch explained that the only way such families would get SCHIP coverage would be if their states petitioned the administration for a waiver — just like under the current program. When New York, made such a petition, the Bush administration turned it down.
The new law would be the same, Hatch said, and even if the White House were willing to grant waivers, such families would make up just a tiny percentage of those eligible.
"To call this a step toward one-size-fits-all, government-mandated health care is just political in my view," he said. "This is a block grant. States have tremendous power over this bill — not total power, but power."
Hatch said he found the veto difficult to understand, and senior Republican Sen. Charles Grassley said the same thing.
"Every effort was made to bring the administration into the process, but it decided to veto the bill, I think, before it was even written. From their position, it was either my way or the highway. Well, that's not how the legislative process works," the Iowa senator said.
Battle Will Continue
The president continues to promote his own, more modest proposal, which would increase funding for the program by one-seventh as much over five years. Grassley and others said this would not cover even the current enrollment in SCHIP.
On Wednesday, President Bush said he is willing to negotiate "if they need a little more money."
An attempt to override the president's veto is expected on Oct. 18. The two-thirds majority appears to be there in the Senate, but in the House, supporters still need 15 more votes.
Grassley said he will begin calling targeted Republicans immediately. In the meantime, labor groups and others are planning rallies and television advertisements.
The president is also expected to continue making his case.