President, Congress, Face Off on Children's Health

Congressional Democrats are on the offensive after Bush vetoed the State Children's Health Insurance Program. We hear from Representative Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Republican Roy Blunt, the Minority Whip.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Another political battle is raging - this one, here in Washington. It's about how to get health care to children from families with low incomes. Democrats, with the help of some Republicans, passed a bill through Congress that would expand what's called SCHIP - the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

They say it would help care for the millions more poor kids that need health insurance. Republicans who opposed it said it expands the program too much. S much, in fact, that it would cover middle class children as well.

President Bush promptly vetoed the bill last week and not, Democrats are running a hard campaign to muster enough votes in the House to override the veto. Now, we don't want to lose side of the issues here - health insurance for kids, the role of the federal government in providing that. But this fight is also about cold, hard politics.

Let's focus on that for a few minutes. Joining me now from his office in suburban Maryland is Congressman Chris Van Hollen, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He's the man in charge of getting House Democrats elected across the country.

Mr. Van Hollen, thanks very much for joining us.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland; Chair, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee): It's good to be with you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Now, your party has scheduled this attempt to override President Bush's veto for later this month. Why the wait? Why not go ahead and do it right away?

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Because we want to use this time to get the votes to override the president's veto. Our goal is to persuade members who voted against the bill to turn around and support with it.

SEABROOK: And when you say take the time to persuade Republicans, what you mean is you're running ads in hotly contested congressional districts around the country.

(Soundbite of SCHIP ad)

Unidentified Child: Hey, Congress, remember me? I'm one of those children. The kind you say you won't leave behind. I know you like us kids but if you want to keep us hanging out with you for the cameras, you need to protect us, not the president.

Unidentified Woman: Over 100,000 children here in Michigan risk losing their affordable quality health insurance while Congressman Tim Walberg receives his health care at taxpayers' expense. With the State Children's Health Insurance Program, SCHIP, set to expire, Congressman Walberg has a choice to make. Continue to stand with President Bush or with American children.

SEABROOK: So these were ads from House Democrats, from outside interest groups. Mr. Van Hollen, you running these ads has caused congressional Republicans to argue that you're, quote, unquote, "playing politics with children's health." How do you rebut that when you are running these ads only in the most closely contested districts.

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, because that's where we have the greatest opportunity to get members of Congress to change their minds. We need to appeal to them in many different ways. But one way to appeal to them is to say to their constituents - here's the information and we hope your member of Congress will vote the right way. And if they don't, you should hold them accountable at the ballot box. And because they face a tough election, they're going to be more inclined to listen to their constituents. So we believe that when we get them to change their votes, you'll see a snowball effect and others will change their votes as well.

SEABROOK: Now, if House Democrats failed to override President Bush's veto, will the Democratic leaders try to work with the president to pass another bill that he might sign or will voters be hearing more about this veto right up to November of '08?

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, we're going to keep the pressure on the president. We think this is a defining issue. It says a lot about someone's priorities. And in fact, what we're really asking President Bush to do is simply go back to the position he had in 2004, where he expressly called for extending the CHIP's program to kids who were eligible but not getting coverage. So we're going to continue to call upon the president and House Republicans until we get this done.

SEABROOK: Congressman Chris Van Hollen is a Democrat from Maryland and the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Sir, thank you very much.

Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

SEABROOK: While Democrats beat the Bushes for votes, House Republicans seem to be holding fast with enough votes to sustain the president's veto of the Children's Health Insurance's expansion.

Congressman Roy Blunt is the minority whip, second in command of House Republicans. He joins me now by phone from his district in Southwest Missouri.

Welcome, sir.

Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri; House Minority Whip): It's good to be with you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Now, 45 Republicans in your conference voted with the Democrats to support this bill. In the Senate, you've got Republicans outwardly hammering on President Bush for vetoing it. What are you doing to keep your party together?

Rep. BLUNT: You know, my sense says that the longer this bill is out there, the more comfortable our members who voted against the bill are with the position they had. This happens to be a bad bill with a great title. It's clearly more politics than trying to do something that insures poor children first which is what SCHIP was designed to do and what I still think it needs to be focus on doing.

SEABROOK: It's interesting that you say the longer the bill is out there, the more comfortable Republicans get with being against it because Congressman Van Hollen told us that the longer this bill is out there the more they're hoping to sway votes to override the veto.

Rep. BLUNT: Well, I think what you see is taking maximum political opportunity of what should be a policy discussion. Chris Van Hollen knows that this bill did not go through the normal process, that it's got lots of flaws that nobody's had time to find yet. Clearly, our friends on the other side is are using this as a huge political moment to get the people to run the ads that make it look like our members voted against children when which what they really voted against was an unreasonable expansion without the current legislation.

SEABROOK: And what kind of pressure are members getting from actual voters in their districts?

Rep. BLUNT: I think there are some pressures in every district for voters but I also believe that as voters begin to understand what this fight is really about, they began to think differently about this.

SEABROOK: Are you saying that these ads that Democrats and interest groups are running are having an effect?

Rep. BLUNT: I don't know that they're having - you know, they're certainly having some kind of effect. But part of the effect is that people that those members work for see that they must be willing to fight about something that is a matter of principle rather than just being willing to vote for a bill because there's got a good title. That's not a bad thing for people that send you to Washington to think. And in fact, if you can prove it's true by casting that tough voted, that's even better.

SEABROOK: Missouri Republican Roy Blunt is the House Minority Whip.

Thank you, sir.

Rep. BLUNT: Andrea, it's great to be with you.

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