Poll Reflects Republican Divisions on SCHIP

The House is set to vote Thursday on whether to override President Bush's veto of a bill to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP.

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks for backers of the SCHIP bill. They have flooded the airwaves with ads, and held hundreds of vigils and rallies and demonstrations, all in an effort to change the votes of about 15 republican House members. That's how many they estimate they need to produce the two-thirds override majority for the bill to add $35 billion to the program over the next five years.

On Tuesday, they even brought singer Paul Simon to the Capitol, although he spoke rather than sang.

"I'm here today to ask those of you who supported the veto to re-examine your conscience, to find compassion in your heart for our most vulnerable and sweetest citizens: our children. I am asking you to change your vote," Simon said at a rally.

But so far, not a single Republican who voted against the bill has said that he or she intends to switch. And the results of a new public opinion poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health may help explain why.

"The majority would vote to overturn the president's veto on this, but enough of a minority wants to stay with the president's position on this that that veto is likely to be sustained," said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health who helped design the poll.

Some of the president's arguments against the bill appear to coincide with public opinion — such as the one that it would allow children in families considered middle income to get government-subsidized health insurance.

One-third of those polled said children in families making $60,000 a year should be eligible for the program, and 15 percent said those earning $80,000 annually should be eligible. No state currently covers children in families with incomes that high, although New York has asked for federal permission.

"I think the sense that this program should be restricted to somewhat more-modest income levels is the issue that has resonated most with the general public," Blendon said.

But the president has been less successful with one line of argument, which he repeated most recently Monday during a speech in Arkansas: "Now, there's some in Washington, D.C., who genuinely believe that the best health care policy is to expand the role of the federal government."

More than half of poll respondents did not think expanding SCHIP would lead to a government-run health care system.

"We've heard that socialized-medicine bugaboo for 50 years," said Earl Thayer, a political independent from Madison, Wis.

Forty percent of respondents said they do think the SCHIP expansion might lead to government-run health care. But even that result produced a surprise.

"When we followed up, and we asked them about that, half of that group said that was actually a good thing," said Mollyann Brodie of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Martha Altier of Houston is one of them. An independent who voted for Bush in 2004, Altier said she disagrees with his veto of the SCHIP bill.

"It's wrong for the United States to be the richest country in the world and for us to have homeless people, children without health insurance, adults without insurance. I personally think we need socialized medicine like they have in Canada," Altier said.

Still, while Democrats and independents are overwhelmingly in favor of the bill and the override, Republicans in the public, as in Congress, remain split. While a majority of Republicans in the poll said they support the bill, a majority also said they don't want Congress to override the president's veto. Blendon says that's not as contradictory as it sounds.

"In the poll, 54 percent of them actually support expansion of the plan as was being debated. But when you get to overturning the veto, you really have six out of 10 that want to stay with the president, which shows that they think he knows something here they weren't aware of, or that they want to just support his leadership," he said.

What the researchers said they found most striking about the poll, though, is how strong support for the bill remained even after people were given the arguments against it. That means that while the president's veto is likely to be sustained, the issue is not likely to go away anytime soon.

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