The House is getting down to serious legislating, unusual for so early in the session, approving — by an overwhelming 289-139 vote — a bill to renew and expand a popular health insurance program for children from low- and moderate-income families.
On one level, the $32 billion measure to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program, better known as SCHIP, represents an early political win for President-elect Barack Obama. If, as expected, the measure also clears the Senate by next week, he can sign a bill twice vetoed by President Bush and make a down payment on his campaign promise to cover all of the nation's children with health insurance. The bill is estimated to add an additional 4 million uninsured children to the program by 2013.
But on another level, Congress has to act early on the SCHIP bill. The standoff over the program between Congress and President Bush in 2007 resulted in continued funding for the program that extended only until March 31. And now with the economy in such dire straits, states are facing more children who qualify for the program but no ability to plan funding.
One change to the House bill that prompted some controversy is the addition of a provision that would eliminate a current five-year waiting period for legal immigrant children and pregnant women to qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP. The waiting period was instituted as part of a controversial welfare overhaul in 1996.
But even more controversial was Democrats' loosening of a rule imposed by Republicans in 2006 requiring all applicants for Medicaid to provide original documentation to prove their citizenship. Several studies have demonstrated that the rules have done little to deter undocumented immigrants from applying for coverage, but rather have prevented many citizens from getting coverage from which they are otherwise eligible.
Republicans, however, said the new documentation process was an invitation to fraud.
"This will be a magnet for more illegal aliens coming into this country, because it's going to provide a mechanism for illegals to get coverage under this bill," said Dan Burton (R-IN).
Still, in the end, 40 Republicans voted for the measure, a larger proportion than voted for the measure in the last Congress.