Republicans Complain About SCHIP Shutout

Democrats are considering giving Republicans a stark choice on the stalled children’s health bill: Cut a deal now or face a politically treacherous vote on the issue a month before next fall’s elections.

The debate over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program has publicly quieted, but behind the scenes Democrats and Republicans have been negotiating for weeks.

President Bush has already vetoed one SCHIP bill, and he has threatened to veto the latest, new version, even though it has been modified to include firm income caps on eligibility and stronger language to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving the health benefits.

If there is no deal by mid-December to expand the program to 10 million lower-income children, Democrats may just propose a temporary extension to last until Sept. 30, 2008, which would force a vote on a critical issue just before the election, according to Democratic aides.

Sept. 30 is the end of this fiscal year.

But the timing, of course, would make vulnerable Republicans either abandon their party and approve the bill or vote against a popular social program just before the election.

Democrats have yet to send the new bill to the president, even though it has passed both chambers, because they are holding out hope that there will be a breakthrough that lures just enough moderate GOP members to vote for the bill.

Without a breakthrough, Democrats may just send the SCHIP bill back to the president once again, as soon as Thursday, for another veto.

Republicans, meanwhile, are complaining that Democrats are shutting them out of the process, and they fear that Democrats will drop a new SCHIP bill on the floor that nobody has seen.

Republican Reps. Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Charles W. Dent of Pennsylvania sent a letter to Democratic leaders on Wednesday, complaining that “there is no official process for members of both parties to evaluate proposed changes to the various legislative proposals.”

This is a standard complaint from the minority party, especially late in the congressional session, when the schedule is tight and lots of legislation needs to be moved.

But Republicans warn that they might not support any new SCHIP legislation if they have been cut out of negotiations.

House Republicans also believe the Democratic strategy to use SCHIP as a political tool could backfire.

“Democrats are making a strategic miscalculation here,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

“Their partisan rhetoric on SCHIP has not resonated with the public. Congress’ poll ratings are in the dumpster because Americans don’t see both parties working together and accomplishing something for the good of the country.”

Senate negotiators did continue to meet with key House members late Wednesday, searching for a compromise that would maintain Democratic support for the bill while luring more Republicans in an effort to achieve a veto-proof majority.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), one of the top Senate negotiators, said the bottom line on the bill — $35 billion to cover 10 million children over five years — has not changed.

Republicans in the House were expected to make one final offer as soon as Thursday.

But Hatch declined in an interview to reveal specifics about what compromises may be offered, saying the negotiations are in a delicate phase.

“It’s tough sledding right now,” he said. “I think we can get it done, … but it’s a tough Congress now.”
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