President Bush on Wednesday vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have dramatically expanded children's health insurance, after saying the legislation was too costly and had strayed from its original intent.
It was only the fourth veto of Bush's presidency, and one that some Republicans feared could be used against them in next year's elections. The Senate approved the bill with enough votes to override the veto, but the margin in the House fell short of the required number.
The State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, is a joint state-federal effort that subsidizes health coverage for 6.6 million people, mostly children, from families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford their own private coverage.
The Democrats who control Congress, with significant support from Republicans, passed the legislation to add $35 billion over five years, allowing an additional 4 million children into the program. It would be funded by raising the federal cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 per pack.
The president had promised to veto it, saying the Democratic bill was too costly, took the program too far from its original intent of helping the poor, and would entice people now covered in the private sector to switch to government coverage. He wants only a $5 billion increase in funding. Bush argued that the congressional plan would be a move toward socialized medicine by expanding the program to higher-income families.
The president faces a possible rebellion by Republican lawmakers who back the bill. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) berated Bush on the Senate floor for having labeled the legislation "irresponsible" in his radio address Saturday.
"If you want to talk about the word responsible and whether Congress is responsible or not in this bill, I would say that anybody that wants to leave the program the way it is — and that's what's going to happen with a veto — that's an irresponsible position to take," Grassley said.
House Democratic leaders have said they will wait until next week or later to try to override a veto. They are hoping by then to peel off some 15 Republicans to get the two-thirds majority they need for an override. Texas A&M presidential scholar George Edwards says that lawmakers who stick with the president could pay for it in next year's elections.
"I think in a widely supported policy like the SCHIP bill, that the risks are substantial for Republicans," Edwards said. "It's difficult to take the case to the voters on something specific like that when we're talking about health care for children and explain the complex rationale for opposition."
Asked why the president has also issued veto threats against almost all the spending bills this year, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president has a role to play in the legislative debate.
"One of the things the president can do is say, 'I'm not going to sign a bill that comes to me with extraneous spending. I'm not going to sign a bill that has policies in it that should not be a part of the United States policy,'" Perino said. "And so I would hope that we wouldn't have to do veto threats, but I think that the Democrats have shown that these are the types of legislative angles that they're going to take, and that's why the president has to send some veto threats up."
At issue is the fact that, added together, the spending bills exceed the president's own budget by some $23 billion.
But Dan Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute says that amount is paltry compared with the amount of excess spending that Bush signed during the Republicans' control of Congress.
"There certainly does seem to be a legitimate argument that the president only objects to new spending when Democrats are doing it, because he certainly wasn't objecting when Republicans controlled Congress," Mitchell said.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said that if there is a spending problem, it is the White House asking for nearly $200 billion in war funding.
"If the president is really concerned about stopping red ink, we are prepared to introduce legislation that will provide for a war surtax for that portion of military costs related to our military action in Iraq," Rep. David Obey (D-WI) proposed.
If President Bush does not like that cost, he added, he can shut down the war.
Most Republicans derided the idea of a war surtax.
"You pay for the war by winning the war," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). "This is not an accounting exercise. How did we pay for World War II? Everybody rolled up their sleeves and did the best they could."
They also paid a war surtax.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave the idea a thumbs down; so did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"The speaker said that is not what she wants," Reid explained. "That's good enough for me."
Facing a spate of veto threats, Democratic leaders show little appetite for a separate fight over raising taxes.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press