As Barack Obama prepares to take office, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are busy debating matters from health care to stimulus plans and financial bailouts. But an initiative that would provide health insurance for millions of children may have been overshadowed — an initiative that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expects will pass.
House leaders have scheduled a Wednesday vote on legislation to renew federal funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which is designed to help families whose incomes place them in a gap between Medicaid and private insurance.
The previous Congress twice voted to extend the SCHIP program, but President Bush vetoed the bill both times, saying it expanded coverage too broadly and cost too much. Asked how the United States — with a projected federal budget deficit of $1.2 trillion for 2009 — can pay for the bill now, Pelosi said most of the SCHIP funds will come from tobacco money.
"It is paid for, largely, by a 61-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes," Pelosi said. "So it's a health measure all around."
The National Association of Tobacco Outlets has complained that raising the cigarette tax would cost workers in the tobacco industry their jobs. But Pelosi said it emphasized what she said were potential benefits for public health.
"It will reduce smoking, we hope, but it will also pay for the health of children," Pelosi said.
Voting on the SCHIP issue will be separate from the broader stimulus plan. But Pelosi said the bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, is a chance for Democrats to prove they can accomplish something early in the new session of Congress.
"We are having this vote now," she said, "because this Democratic majority in the Congress puts women and children first."
Debate over President-elect Obama's stimulus package is expected to be more contentious, particularly in regard to the amount and type of tax cuts included. The incoming administration's plan is believed to cost more than $775 billion over two years, with $300 billion in tax cuts.
That's fine with Democrats in Congress, Pelosi said, "as long as the tax cuts are those which stimulate the economy, which give a tax cut to the middle class, not the wealthiest people in America."
Pelosi also noted that investments in the country's physical and human infrastructure create jobs faster and "bring a bigger bang for the buck" than tax cuts, so health and education "have a strong piece of the recovery package."
And she declared that the House would approve a stimulus package before the Presidents' Day recess — or there would be no recess.
"We won't leave without it," Pelosi said.