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Senate passes children's health insurance bill, Bush vows to veto

  • Story Highlights
  • Senate passes children's health insurance bill with a 67-29 vote
  • Bush vows to veto expansion of State Children Health Insurance Program
  • Measure expands number of children covered by 4 million
  • Current program scheduled to expire Saturday
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate voted 67-29 Thursday night to expand the State Children's Health Insurance program, a measure President Bush has vowed to veto as a step toward universal coverage.

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President Bush has threatened to veto the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

The program would double -- from 4 million to 8 million -- the number of children covered.

Eighteen Republicans joined all of the Democrats in voting to expand the program from its current annual budget of $5 billion to $12 billion for the next five years.

Four senators -- Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democrats Joseph Biden of Delaware and Barack Obama of Illinois -- did not vote.

The reauthorization bill "fails to focus on poor children, and instead creates a new entitlement program for higher-income households," said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino in a written statement.

"The president will veto this bill because it directs scarce funding to higher incomes at the expense of poor families."

With the current program scheduled to expire Saturday, the White House encouraged Congress to send the president a continuing resolution extending the program.

"We should take this time to arrive at a more rational, bipartisan SCHIP reauthorization bill that focuses on children in poor families who don't currently have insurance, rather than raising taxes to cover people who already have private insurance," Perino added.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was among those Republicans who split from the president. "It's very difficult for me to be against a man I care so much for," he told his colleagues on the Senate floor prior to the vote. "It's unfortunate that the president has chosen to be on what, to me, is clearly the wrong side of this issue."

Though 67 votes in the 100-person chamber would suffice to overturn a veto, the House version, which was approved Tuesday, fell short of the two-thirds majority needed.

Bush and many Republicans contend the program's original intent would be changed under the current bill. The program is supposed to give parents who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private insurance coverage for their children. The concern is that parents might be prompted to drop private coverage their children already have in order to get cheaper coverage under the bill.

Though Bush has been clear about his veto plans, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, held out hope he would have a change of heart.

"It is my fervent hope that the president will put away his veto pen so that he can get on with the business of adequately funding programs that contribute, yes, contribute, to a safe and prosperous United States of America," he said.

Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, said illegal aliens would use "glaring loopholes" in the legislation to enroll in it.

But Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, disagreed.

"I bristle when there are colleagues who come to this floor and still bring up the red herring of immigrant children being covered who shouldn't have the right," he said. "Undocumented immigrants have never been eligible for regular Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program, and this bill maintains that prohibition."

"Every child deserves health care," said Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. "More than 9 million do not have access to quality, affordable health care. That is a moral crisis and it should be impelling us to act."

Though children in a family of four making 250 percent of the poverty level -- or up to $52,000 per year -- would be eligible under the bill, that kind of salary "doesn't go very far in New York," she said.

"If the president vetoes this bill, he will be vetoing health care for almost 4 million children, and he will be putting ideology -- not children -- first," she added.

Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican from the tobacco-growing state of Kentucky, cited the fact that the bill would get its funds from an increase in tobacco taxes as unfair.

"It redistributes income from low-income smokers to states with the highest per-capita incomes," he said. "It could be called Robin Hood in reverse."

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, was also unimpressed. "This is a perfect example of the type of partisan politics that goes on in Washington all the time," he told CNN. "It's not about trying to take care of the children; it's about how can we get a political advantage." Video Watch Lott give his take on kids' insurance »

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He added, "Do you really believe Republicans don't want to help poor, low-income children?"

He credited his colleagues in the House for taking a stand against the bill. "Thank goodness they're going to do the right thing for the children and for fiscal responsibility. They're going to sustain the president's veto, and then hopefully we can sit down rationally and work out an agreement to preserve this program." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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