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Democrats ready for passage, then veto, of children’s health care bill

    WASHINGTON — House Democrats prepared for a mixed victory on children’s health insurance Tuesday, predicting enough votes to expand a 10-year-old state-federal program but not enough to override President Bush’s promised veto later this fall.
    To the dismay of some moderate Republicans, Bush adamantly opposes the proposed five-year addition of $35 billion to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. The program provides coverage for 6.6 million children from families that live above the poverty level but have trouble buying private health insurance.
    The proposed expansion, backed by most governors and many health-advocacy groups, would add another 4 million children to the rolls.
    House and Senate Democrats overwhelmingly support the $35 billion expansion, and feel GOP lawmakers are blundering politically by supporting Bush. Wary House Republican leaders decided Tuesday to press for party solidarity from just enough members to give Bush a veto-proof margin, allowing other GOP members to support the measure if they feel it is vital to their constituents and re-election hopes.
    ‘‘We’ve got all our leadership pounding us pretty good,’’ said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., a leader of Republican moderates who support the proposed expansion. Just as the House debate began Tuesday, he predicted about 30 of the House’s 201 Republicans would vote for the measure.
    To overturn a presidential veto, both chambers of Congress must produce two-thirds majorities. With two seats vacant, the House has 433 members, meaning 145 votes against the proposed expansion would represent a veto-proof margin.
    That’s the number of Republican votes party leaders were seeking in closed-door meetings Tuesday, even though they acknowledged that a few Democrats might help them by opposing the bill because of it would sharply raise tobacco taxes. Some Hispanic Democrats also are angry that the bill would make legal immigrant children wait five years to qualify for SCHIP.
    More than two-thirds of the 100 senators are expected to approve the proposed $35 billion expansion later this week. But a House failure to override Bush’s promised veto would render a Senate override effort pointless.
    A Republican-controlled Congress and President Bill Clinton created the SCHIP program in 1997 to provide health coverage for families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid but not high enough to pay for private coverage. Under the expansion proposal, states could seek federal waivers to steer funds to some families earning at least triple the official poverty-level income, provided the states showed progress enrolling the main target: children in families earning up to double the poverty rate. That would be $34,340 for a family of three, or $41,300 for a family of four.
    The Bush administration says the legislation could qualify some New York families of four making about $83,000 a year, or four times the poverty level. Such a scenario is unlikely, the bill’s proponents say, because it would require waivers the administration has rejected.
    Bush says the legislation would cost too much, subsidize families that can afford insurance, and trigger an unacceptable tax increase. The bill would raise the federal cigarette tax to $1 per pack, a 61-cent increase.
    Bush proposes a smaller increase in SCHIP — $5 billion over five years — although some Republican lawmakers say he might agree to a larger hike later.
    In a ‘‘statement of administration policy’’ Tuesday, the White House said the bill ‘‘goes too far toward federalizing health care.’’ Republicans said they had no doubt Bush would veto it. In his nearly seven years in office, Bush has vetoed only bills to withdraw troops from Iraq and to expand federal research involving embryonic stem cells.
    SCHIP is set to expire Sunday. To avert that, congressional Democrats plan to extend it temporarily as part of a larger spending bill intended to keep the government running when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. The strategy would prevent Democrats from being blamed for letting the health program lapse by not reaching an accord with Bush, lawmakers said.
    House Republican leaders berated Democrats for including several earmarks, or targeted spending items, in the 299-page SCHIP bill, which was not available for public review until Monday night. Democrats had declared the bill earmark-free. But Republicans found language directing funds to programs in Tennessee, California and elsewhere.
    Democrats vowed to campaign heavily against Republicans who support Bush’s veto, portraying them as backing heavy spending on the Iraq war but not a significant expansion of a popular health care program for children.
    ‘‘We think the president has 10 million reasons to sign the SCHIP bill,’’ House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at an event in the Capitol that included a Maryland mother who relied on SCHIP coverage when two of her children were badly injured in a car accident.
    ———
    The bill is ‘‘Senate Amendments to HR 976.’’

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