White House officials claim they thought the president's showdown with Congress over further funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, would be a policy debate over expanding a government program.
Instead, with bipartisan support mounting for a compromise bill, in rhetoric and media coverage the SCHIP debate has become a fight over whether the president cares about sick kids.
The president has threatened to veto an expansion of the program from its current $25 billion level to $60 billion over five years, saying it would cost too much money, unnecessarily cover citizens who can afford private insurance, and increase taxes on "working people." Last week, President Bush cast the debate as "a philosophical divide that exists in Washington over the best approach for health care. Democratic leaders in Congress want to put more power in the hands of government by expanding federal health care programs. … I have a different view."
But Democrats made sure not to cast this divide in terms of anything other than whether or not one thinks ailing children should be cared for.
Pelosi: 'Suffer the Children'
At a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stood with Jemma Frost, a 9-year-old girl whose recovery from a traumatic brain injury sustained in a car accident was due to funding from this program. Gemma is a "living example of the importance of SCHIP," Pelosi said. "Gemma, we want you to be healthy and happy and successful. That's why we are doing this."
"Mr. President, please don't veto this bill," Pelosi said to the assembled media. "Please don't give new meaning to the phrase 'suffer the little children.'"
Pelosi was referring to a passage in the New Testament Book of Mark in which Jesus admonishes his disciplines for turning away parents who want the son of God to bless their children. "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not," Jesus said, "for of such is the kingdom of God."
Bush has called for a five-year, $5 billion increase in SCHIP, which covers the children of low-income families not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but not wealthy enough to afford private health insurance. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a $50 billion increase; last month the Senate -- with a veto-proof majority of 68 votes -- passed a $35 billion increase.
The compromise coming before the House and Senate this week would cost $35 billion, and according to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, many of the provisions the president objected to -- the possible use of SCHIP to cover adults, for instance -- have been removed.
The program would be paid for by an increase in tobacco taxes -- 61 cents a pack for cigarettes, 16 cents per cigar -- a debt largely footed by lower-income people who smoke disproportionately.
President Makes Questionable Claims
Bush has said that the compromise bill "would result in taking a program meant to help poor children and turning it into one that covers children in households with incomes of up to $83,000 a year."
The program, created under a Republican Congress, is actually not intended to help "poor children," but rather those just above the poverty line.
As for the president's speculation that families making $83,000 would be covered, the nonpartisan FactCheck.org stated that claim is false, noting new guidelines from the Center on Medicare and Medicaid Services making it "quite difficult" for any state to raise its eligibility for SCHIP recipients for those making more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, $51,625 for a family of four.
The quibbling over $30 billion has also allowed Democrats to attack the price of the Iraq War, which to date has cost close to a trillion dollars. Tuesday the House Democratic Caucus Chairman, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill, noted that the White House threatened to veto the compromise at the same time it is requesting an additional $200 billion in funding for the Iraq War.
"Two hundred billion dollars more for Iraq -- and $35 billion for kids is labeled excessive spending?" Emanuel asked. "Forty-one days of war would give all 10 million children health care," Emanuel argued. "This is not a matter of spending, it's a matter of priorities."