WASHINGTON — The House failed to override President Bush's veto of the children's health insurance bill Thursday, and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said he will lead negotiations to find a compromise between the White House and Congress.

The override failed 273 to 156, about a dozen votes short of the two-thirds needed to defeat a veto.

Congress had approved a bill to add $35 billion to the State Children's Health Insurance Program and extend it over the next five years with expanded coverage, while the president wanted to expand the program by $5 billion by 2012 and limit coverage to children from families at 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four in 2007, the federal poverty level is $20,650, so a family of four earning $41,300 or less per year would be eligible for coverage under Bush's proposal.

Leavitt said Thursday that "the administration offers an open door" to reach a compromise.

"Both as a governor at the program's inception and today as secretary, I know what this program has done for millions of children," Leavitt said. "Members of Congress saw the wisdom in putting children from low-income families at the front of the SCHIP line, giving another chance to get this right. I will continue to work with members to stay true to the principle that poor children should come first in public assistance programs like SCHIP."

Leavitt, a former Utah governor, said that the federal Children's Health Insurance Program is in place until Nov. 15 and that he has worked with the states to make sure that no one currently covered by the program loses coverage while Washington figures out what to do.

"No children lose coverage," Leavitt said in an interview. "The question now is who is intended to be covered."

Utah's Republican House members voted to sustain the veto, while Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, wanted to override it.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, called the bill "flawed legislation." He advocates giving families a tax break to help them buy private health insurance and limiting malpractice lawsuits to help keep health-care costs down.

"We could reauthorize the program tomorrow for truly needy kids if we could remove the politics from a serious debate over children's health," Cannon said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, was disappointed "the House wasted so much time posturing on this issue, when we all knew where we'd end up this week."

"Hopefully now we can move on and reach a legitimate compromise that doesn't bust the budget and doesn't go beyond the mark of helping those who really need it," he said.

But Matheson said the failed override was "bitterly disappointing."

"The reality is that many children in families with working parents still need us to come together on a plan," Matheson said. "They are relying on the adults in their world to make this possible, and we cannot afford to let them, or their parents, down."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who helped create the CHIP program in 1997, also was disappointed by the failed override.

"Many of us worked so hard to deliver this solid, bipartisan compromise to the president," said Hatch, who worked on the Senate Finance Committee to get the Senate version of the bill done. "I regret we weren't able to persuade him to reauthorize CHIP, because this bill is truly about helping low-income children who do not have health care."

Hatch said he plans to continue working toward a compromise to reauthorize the program.

Voices for Utah Children, an advocacy group, thanked Matheson for his support but said it was disappointed with Cannon and Bishop. "It is tragic that the president and a minority in Congress opposed a compromise that would provide health care to 4 million otherwise uninsured children without adding a penny to the deficit," the group said.

Last year, the number of uninsured children in Utah increased by 26 percent, the group added.

Leavitt said that ideas laid out in a letter sent Thursday to President Bush by 38 Republicans are good guidelines to follow in seeking to reach a compromise. The lawmakers recommended that children who get coverage through CHIP continue to get it and that the program be limited to low-income children. The program also should not force children out of private health insurance or include adults or illegal immigrants, the congressmen wrote.


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