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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

We've been covering a health care debate this week - children's health - and the future of a program called the State Children's Health Care Insurance Program, or SCHIP. The president vetoed a plan to expand the program. Yesterday in Congress, the House failed to override that veto. But polls show this program is really very popular with the public so Democrats and Republicans are now talking compromise.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the gap between the two sides remains wide.

JULIE ROVNER: The override debate on the House floor was brief, and after two weeks of hand-to-hand politics, it got a bit nasty. Iowa Republican Steve King even came up with a new definition for the acronym SCHIP.

Representative STEVE KING (Republican, Iowa): And what this is about, SCHIP stands for Socialized Clinton-style Hillary-care for Illegals and their Parents.

ROVNER: California Democrat Pete Stark responded in kind.

Representative FORTNEY PETE STARK (Democrat, California): The Republicans are worried that we can't pay for insuring an additional 10 million children. They sure don't care about finding $200 billion to fight the illegal war in Iraq.

ROVNER: In the end, the final tally was 13 votes short of the two-thirds needed. After the vote, there were some tentative signs of possible reconciliation, like this from Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

Secretary MICHAEL LEAVITT (U.S. Health and Human Services): Well, now we'll begin a process, a conversation to find our common ground. We need to get the - roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of reaching agreement.

ROVNER: And this from House Democratic caucus chair Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): There's been some issues or concerns raised by our colleagues, and although we think they're already taken care of in the bill, we're more than willing to look at some of them and adjust accordingly.

ROVNER: Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation says a poll out this week by the foundation, NPR and the Harvard School of Public Health lays a pretty clear path for a compromise that would be favored by the public.

Mr. DREW ALTMAN (Kaiser Family Foundation): One in which the White House moves up on the money, puts more money into an expansion of the SCHIP program. The Democrats move down on the eligibility ceiling for income that the states are allowed to go to, say, to three times the poverty level or kids in families up to $60,000 per year, which our polls show there would be substantial support for.

ROVNER: But at the same time, said Altman, the fight doesn't bode well for bigger health reform efforts expected during the next administration.

Mr. ALTMAN: Because if they can't agree on covering kids in Washington in the Congress, how are they going to agree on a bigger health reform plan in the new Congress?

ROVNER: And despite the lip service being paid to reaching such a compromise, it's pretty clear that the two sides aren't ready to move very far.

For instance, here's what Leavitt says is the president's bottom line.

Secretary LEAVITT: This program needs to be reauthorized and it needs to focus on children who are poor.

ROVNER: But Congressman Emanuel, who helped create the SCHIP program as an aid in the Clinton White House a decade ago, says that was never the target population.

Rep. EMANUEL: Quote-unquote, "poor kids first." I mean, poor kids first go to Medicaid. This is intended for children of working parents.

ROVNER: And Emanuel says Democrats and Republicans who supported the bill have a bottom line of their own.

Rep. EMANUEL: Ten million kids will get health care in this initiative, and that is an agreement that Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate have agreed upon.

ROVNER: The program is running to temporary funding until the middle of November. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after the vote she intends to have a bill back to President Bush within the next two weeks. She didn't say whether that bill will be one she expects him to sign or veto again.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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