President Bush -- buoyed by the Senate Republicans holding Democrats at bay over troop deployments in Iraq yesterday -- came out swinging at the Congress today over passage of the State Child Health Care Insurance Program (SCHIP).
Bush is up in arms over a proposed expansion of the program. He wants Congress to agree to a small increase of $5 billion over five years. Left alone, the program would expire Sept. 30.
The program provides coverage to poor children who are ineligible for coverage under Medicare and who lack private health insurance, and according to a
Senate report, it's been a big success. According to the report, the number of uninsured children has decreased from 14% in 1997 to about 9% in 2005, bucking the opposite trend for adults.
The Senate and the House this week will finalize details on the expansion, which would add 4 million children to the 6 million the program already serves. The sticking point comes over the House approving a more generous expansion of $50 billion, as opposed to the Senate's $35 billion.
Bush says he philosophically opposes expanding coverage. He chided Congress for trying to take a "step toward government-run" health care and vowed to veto the bill once it reaches his desk. It passed the Senate with a 68-31 margin -- sufficient to override a veto.
The president hopes to fight off his image as a lame duck, but he has chosen a strange fight to pick with Congress.
The expansion of the SCHIP program would be funded by a small tax increase on cigarettes. A
recent poll by the American Medical Association found that 70% of Americans support a tax hike to pay for children's health care. In addition, incremental increases in cigarette prices are
thought to have played a role in decreases in smoking. This sounds like a win-win situation for public health.
Bush, however, prefers to fight expansion of the program. He favors funding care for poor children only -- rather than the lower- or middle-class families who'd be covered under the Senate bill -- and suggested that expansion would cause middle-class families to cancel private policies in favor of public policies. The expansion only affects people presently lacking coverage.
The president took preemptive measures trying to gain political leverage last month. He chose to restrict eligibility for the program by placing
heavy burdens on states and reducing their ability to retain enrollment flexibility. This could deny children health care coverage. The maneuver was highly unusual because Republicans often favor states' rights on many issues.
Bush took questions after giving his statements, and I found two of the answers of interest. Speaking on fiscal responsibility, he says he's a "supply-sider." "I got a B in Econ 101, but I got an A, however, in keeping taxes low." He disputes former Fed chief Alan Greenspan's assertion that his administration is fiscally irresponsible.
Many Republicans, however, disagree with Bush saying he has been no better than the big government Democrats. I've
mentioned before that conservatives have harshly criticized him for federal funding of education (No Child Left Behind Act) and increasing Medicare funding (Medicare Modernization Act).
He was also asked if he will be a liability or an asset to his party come the elections in 2008. He bit back that he would be an asset having stuck to his guns on fiscal responsibility. I have to disagree about him being an asset on this issue.
The battle for the White House and control of Congress will be hard fought over the next 14 months. I can just imagine attack ads against Republican Congress members who were forced to vote against child health care to favor big tobacco. This is not a winner. I don't think Republicans want this kind of liability.
SCHIP expansion will make through Congress. If the president chooses to veto it, he will lose further credibility with his own party and risks losing other battles, as well.