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Story highlights

The Children's Health Insurance Program has been mired in uncertainty

After September 30, the program ran out of federal funding

(CNN) —  

On Monday night, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel rallied Americans to care about something many voters have probably never thought much about before: the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“It covers around 9 million American kids whose parents make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but don’t have access to affordable coverage through their jobs,” Kimmel told his audience as he bounced his own baby son, Billy (who just had heart surgery a week ago), in his arms.

In recent months, CHIP – a program that has existed for two decades and is a rare, bipartisan bright spot on Capitol Hill – has been mired in uncertainty.

The program even got a mention Tuesday night by Sen.-elect Doug Jones, a Democrat, who next month will fill a US Senate seat from Alabama.

“Take this opportunity in light of this election and go ahead and fund that CHIP program before I get up there,” Jones issued as a challenge to his “future colleagues” during his victory speech. “Put it aside and let’s do it for those million kids and 150,000 here in Birmingham, Alabama.”

The program ran out of federal funding on September 30. In the months that followed, states cobbled together money to keep their programs running, and when that became precarious for some states Congress acted last week to create a temporary patch for the program that would make it easier for states to keep their programs afloat until the end of the year. Even then, however, some states have been forced to send out letters alerting parents that the funding for a program that millions of kids depend on could end if Congress doesn’t act.

RELATED: CHIP funding is latest victim of DC dysfunction

Republicans and Democrats say they are still negotiating a final resolution for CHIP, and Republicans are emphatic that the program will not cease to exist despite the impassioned monologues from the likes of Kimmel.

But the program – first authored by late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah (and with the support of then-first-lady Hillary Clinton) – has failed to escape the hyper-partisan climate.

Senate Republicans say the delay on CHIP is merely a result of the fact that the Senate and House are still negotiating a year-end spending bill.

“There hasn’t been any agreement on spending caps so it’s pushed all of this to the end of the year, to the 22nd,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. “Unfortunately it looks like we may get kicked over the January before all of this can get done … but there’s a lot of different pieces riding on that year-end and now maybe first of the year deal and unfortunately it’s delayed everything.”

Parents to Congress: My child depends on CHIP for health insurance

Democrats, meanwhile, have argued that Republicans are so concerned about their tax overhaul that they’ve forsaken CHIP, pushed it off until after they’ve ensured they have the votes to pass their priority legislation. They’ve accused Republicans of trying to use health insurance program as a bargaining chip in year-end spending negotiations.

“I think the holdup is that Republicans want to dangle it as if they’re not going to do it to try to extract a concession,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia. “We got the votes for it. All it does is terrorize parents right before Christmas and make them worry about whether their kid will lose health insurance, which is so stupid.”

In recent weeks and before Kimmel, CHIP has emerged as a kind of political token. It was the center of another high-profile scuffle in November when Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown accused Hatch, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, of not caring about CHIP, which led Hatch to remind Brown that “I was the one who wrote it.”

“No one believes more in the CHIP than I,” Hatch said. “I invented it.”

Principals on both sides acknowledge they’ll be a resolution to CHIP in upcoming weeks. Hatch told reporters Tuesday that Congress would get the job done and top Democrat on the Finance Committee Ron Wyden of Oregon said he was “continuing” “discussions” with Hatch.

“If I had my way, this bill would have passed many many weeks ago,” Wyden said.

But the fact remains that getting to a resolution has meant that a program that was once a gem of bipartisanship has become a political football.

“Most everything has gotten polarized and politicized in this town so I’m not terribly surprised,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania. “My guess is it gets reauthorized.”