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CHIPped off 

If there's anything the folks in Washington can rally around these days, it's kids. They're cute, they're needy, and they're not a threat to anyone's job. And while government programs for immigrants and the poor are often met with skepticism and derision, not even the most ardent free-market capitalist wants to be accused of not looking out for the little ones.

But that charge has been flying on both sides of the aisle these past few weeks, after Congress' attempts to renew the widely popular State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) met with a veto from President Bush.

Bush claims the bipartisan measure to renew and expand the program, which got an approximately six-week reauthorization in September, would be one more step toward big, bad, government-run health care. Never mind the fact that the $35 billion measure would extend coverage to 3.8 million kids who otherwise wouldn't be able to see a doctor when they got sick the president is ideologically opposed. Now, in the debate over how to provide health care to the 15 percent of Americans who are uninsured, it looks like kids have become the political football.

S-CHIP was started in 1997 to provide health care to children whose families couldn't afford insurance but weren't poor enough to be covered by Medicaid. It currently provides health care to 6.1 million children annually, and the new legislation would extend that number to around 10 million theoretically ensuring that all children have access to health care by the year 2012. Sadly, the compromise legislation does not include a House-passed measure that would have given states the option to cover legal immigrant children during their first five years in the United States children who are currently ineligible for both S-CHIP and Medicaid.

That, of course, is not the reason for Bush's veto. The real problem is the new S-CHIP legislation expands eligibility to kids in families with slightly higher incomes some of whom would've just barely been able to afford private health insurance.

As if that would somehow hurt the 3.8 million children who would remain uninsured under his proposed funding levels, Bush said in a press conference: "I want ... Congress to be focused on making sure poor children get the health insurance they were promised." That statement has been directly contradicted by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whom CongressDaily quotes as saying the president's "understanding of our bill is wrong, and I would urge the president to reconsider his veto message based upon the bill we might pass, not something that some staffer has told him."

Bush has accused Congress of "putting health coverage for poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington." But if he had his way, millions of kids who have no access to health care would remain uninsured in the name of privatization.

Democrats have promised to revisit the bill every two to three months until Bush relents or the Republican opposition collapses. The bill passed last week with a veto-proof 67-29 majority in the Senate, but the House fell 25 votes short of the two-thirds majority required to override a veto. If it weren't for the question of funding, they might have had it.

When Democrats took over Congress, they passed strict new budgeting rules that require them to make up any spending increase by creating an equal increase in revenue. For the S-CHIP legislation, lawmakers proposed to raise funds through a 61 cent-per-pack increase on the cigarette tax, and the tobacco industry wasn't having it. Their lobbyists worked their magic, and, in the end, only one of the 33 Republican tobacco-state representatives voted for the bill.

While this debate offers a revealing lesson in the way money, lobbying and political name-calling direct governmental policy, those subtleties are likely to be lost on an asthmatic 10-year-old with no health insurance. Democrats have said they're done compromising, but if Bush can't see reason, Congress needs to find a way to get those tobacco-beholden lawmakers on board.

Millions of kids are depending on it.

Mary Wilson is a contributor to Philadelphia City Paper, where this column originally appeared.

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