MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. President-elect Barack Obama still has a handful of days before he moves in to the White House, but he is one house of Congress closer to his first legislative victory. Today, the House overwhelmingly passed a four-and-a-half year extension of the State Children's Health Insurance Program or SCHIP. It could potentially add four million more children to health insurance rolls. The legislation was vetoed twice by President Bush. NPR's Julie Rovner explains.
JULIE ROVNER: The thing about the SCHIP program, as it's known, is that just about everyone, Democrat and Republican, says they support it. The program currently provides health insurance to about 6.7 million children and families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private coverage.
But the last time Congress tried to renew it in 2007, the effort collapsed in discord. In the end, it was extended until this March, leaving its fate to the new Congress and president and what a difference an election makes. That was the theme as the House debated the bill today. Chris Van Hollen is a Democrat from Maryland.
Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): President Bush twice vetoed this legislation on children's health. We will soon have the new president who - one of his first acts as president will sign this legislation, a president who understands the hardships American families are struggling under at a time when more than two million of Americans have lost their jobs in just two months.
ROVNER: But Republicans also felt the difference since the last time Congress debated the children's health issue, and they weren't happy. They complained that with larger majorities and no need to worry about a presidential veto, Democrats made too many changes to the bill. Dave Camp is the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.
Representative DAVE CAMP (Republican, Michigan): A children's health program should not be used to cover adults, non-citizens, potentially illegal immigrants and those making $80,000 a year.
ROVNER: Republicans were particularly unhappy about a provision that would loosen strict rules they imposed three years ago. Those rules require all applicants for the Medicaid program to prove their citizenship with original documents. Several studies have shown that the new rules have not deterred many undocumented immigrants, but have prevented many eligible citizens from getting coverage they're actually entitled to. Still, Republicans like Steve Scalise from Louisiana insisted the change would backfire.
Representative STEVE SCALISE (Republican, Louisiana): Taxpayers, who will be footing this bill, will be having to pay for illegal aliens that will now be able to get benefits under this bill that under current law they're not able to get because there is a verification process.
ROVNER: Another change to the bill concerning immigration prompted somewhat less controversy. It would repeal a provision originally imposed in 1996 that requires a five-year waiting period for legal immigrants to get Medicaid or SCHIP. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that simply makes no sense when it comes to children.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; House Majority Leader): It doesn't make moral sense to deny those children health services when their parents already pay payroll taxes. It doesn't make public health sense to keep those kids from getting the basic care they need. As a parent, as a grandfather and as a great-grandfather, very frankly, I want my child in school with healthy children.
ROVNER: And some Republicans, like Florida's Lincoln Diaz-Balart, said he was only voting for the bill because the waiting period was dropped.
Representative LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (Republican, Florida): We're going to have a vote on this program that is going to include thousands of children and their moms who unfairly have been excluded.
ROVNER: The bill now goes to the Senate where Democrats have offered a similar bill, but without the provisions on legal immigrants. Leaders are hoping to get it to the newly-inaugurated president by late next week. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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