WASHINGTON In a deepening conflict with the White House, Democrats pushed a revised children's health bill through the House on Thursday but lacked the votes to overcome a threatened second straight veto by President Bush.
The vote was 265-142 on a bill so politically charged that one Republican bluntly accused Democrats of timing the events to dovetail with attack ads planned by organizations supporting the legislation.
"They won't take yes for an answer," retorted Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, as Democrats vehemently denied the charge. He said the legislation included changes demanded by GOP critics of the earlier vetoed bill, including one to prevent illegal immigrants from gaining benefits.
The measure now goes to the Senate.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader, told reporters additional changes are possible before it heads to the White House. At the same time, he added, "I don't want to be strung along" by Republicans merely feigning an interest in bipartisan compromise.
The legislation is designed chiefly to provide coverage for children whose families make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to purchase private insurance.
The vote put a finer point on the dispute over the reauthorization bill but didn't offer any progress toward a resolution, Utah advocates said.
Organizers of public rallies in favor of the bipartisan CHIP bill say they will reorganize efforts to convince the entire Utah delegation in Congress to veto-proof the approval.
Regardless, CHIP manager Nate Checketts said the insurance plan, which currently covers about 27,000 children (45,200 are eligible but not covered) of working Utah families who don't receive medical coverage and are too poor to buy it, can operate without significant financial stress for at least five months at current enrollments.
The CHIP renewal is a big factor in Gov. Jon Huntsman's goal that every Utahn have health insurance. The CHIP delay thwarts that effort; plus, as several Utah small business representatives said at a health care reform conference on Wednesday, employer-subsidized medical insurance in general is a benefit many are finding they just can't afford.
Before the veto controversy started, advocates for the poor were noting that the number of Utahns adults and children who have insurance is actually slipping. And the increase in the uninsured occurred between 2004 and 2005, a period when the economy was much more robust.
That's why the basis for a veto is "unfortunate," said Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project. The idea that expanding the program marks the beginning of socialized medicine because middle-class children will be eligible "is based on false premises, and points out just how broken our system of health care has become."
In general, supporters said it would extend coverage to children of families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $62,000 for a family of four.
At that level, congressional officials said, it would cover about 4 million children who now go without, raising the total for the program overall to 10 million kids. The $35 billion cost over five years would be covered by an increase in the tobacco tax of 61 cents a pack.
The vote unfolded one week after the House failed to override Bush's earlier veto, and indicated that the changes Democrats had made failed to attract much, if any, additional support.
The 265 votes cast for the measure was seven shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. In addition, 14 Republicans who voted to sustain Bush's original veto were absent.
Public opinion polls show widespread support for the issue, and the political subtext was never far from the surface in the debate.
The children's health measure has emerged as one of the most contentious issues of the year, temporarily supplanting last winter and spring's fierce debate over the Iraq war.
"There may be some particular loyalty to the president," Rep. Charles Rangel said in remarks aimed at Republican opponents of the legislation. "But you have to remember than when these voters come to you the president's veto message will not be stapled to you and you will have to be able to explain your vote," added Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
"This bill is not going to become law," countered Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader. "If you're tired of the political games, if you're tired of Congress' approval rating being at these ridiculous levels, let's all just vote no."
Democrats, sensing a political advantage, were having none of that.
"God willing, President Bush will sign this bill," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at a news conference less than an hour before the White House issued a statement saying he would not.
The bill "continues to move children from private health insurance to government programs; provides insufficient safeguards to assure that funds will not be spent on ineligible individuals; and, remarkably, actually costs more than the earlier bill, not withstanding supposed improvements in policy," it said.
Even some Republican supporters of the measure bristled at the Democratic decision to hold the vote less than 24 hours after unveiling the revised measure, and with several lawmakers away from the Capitol because of wildfires that have caused deaths and widespread destruction in California.
"Bringing the bill up today, with no time to even read it, is either a terrible mistake or an intentional partisan maneuver," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who supported the vetoed bill.
Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Va., was considerably more pointed. In an interview, she said she had told Hoyer in a closed-door meeting that it appeared Democrats would not postpone the vote "because the ads had already been bought. That was the only thing that made sense to me."
She added that she reminded Hoyer that Democrats delayed an override vote on Bush's earlier veto for two weeks while she and other Republicans were attacked in television commercials.
In response, Hoyer's spokeswoman, Stacey Bernards, said: "This vote is about providing health care coverage for 10 million children and has nothing to do with when independent advocacy groups decide to schedule ads. That accusation is completely ridiculous and more evidence of some Republicans looking for any excuse to vote against this bipartisan bill."
Brad Woodhouse, head of Americans United for Change, which supports the legislation, said commercials are running in the districts of a few Republicans who opposed the earlier measure. He said more were planned depending on the outcome of the vote and that Drake was on the target list.
Contributing: James Thalman, Deseret Morning News