This vote was on final passage of a measure that would reauthorize and expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), allocating nearly $60 billion over five years for the program. The costs of the program would be offset by increasing the taxes on tobacco products, including raising the tax on cigarettes by 61 cents to $1 per pack. The SCHIP program – funded primarily through taxes on tobacco products -- helps low income families with children afford health insurance, and currently covers about 6 million kids.
During debate on the bill, which President Bush threatened to veto, Republicans repeatedly attempted to chip away at the bill’s additional funding, complaining that SCHIP has fulfilled – and exceeded – its original mandate, to be a health insurance safety net for poor children. The debate was so contentious that the Senate Democratic leadership had to call for a vote on cutting off debate and proceeding to a final vote on the measure, which succeeded by a veto-proof margin (see vote 352).
Some Republicans complained that some states have begun to allow very poor adults, as well as children, to be covered under SCHIP. They have also argued that people have begun quitting their jobs so that they can qualify for SCHIP coverage, and that expanding the program would just encourage more people to quit their jobs. Additionally, some Republicans have argued that SCHIP will turn into another large government entitlement health care spending program, such as Medicaid or Social Security.
“Republicans were ready to finish the good work we started with SCHIP, and we approached its reauthorization this year as an opportunity to do just that, to reach out to the kids in our original target area who should be covered by SCHIP but weren’t,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Meanwhile, our friends on the other side had another idea: following the lead of a number of State Governors, they decided to expand SCHIP beyond its original mandate and bring us down the path of Government-run healthcare for everyone. These Governors started with adults and children from middle and upper middle-income families. Taking SCHIP funds that were originally meant for children from poor families, they spent it on these other populations instead. Then they turned around and said they didn’t have enough money to cover the poor children in their States.”
Democrats generally counter that providing health care to more needy people is better than providing it to fewer, and that SCHIP is funded through a vice tax on tobacco, and therefore nothing like an entitlement program.
“Our bill focuses benefits on low-income children. It is that simple. That is what the bill is, no more. And the truth is, the administration does not have a credible alternative,” said Max Baucus, D-Mont. “I urge my colleagues to join me in making the right choice because in the end, this bill is about helping those who can least afford health insurance now. This bill is about helping America’s parents who truly want the best for their children. And as much as some may be tempted to make up a story to say it is about something else, the truth is, this bill is about kids.”
By a vote of 67-29, the Senate passed the bill. Every Democrat present voted for the bill. Of Republicans present, 18 voted for the bill and 29 voted against it. The end result is that the Senate cleared the bill that would reauthorize and expand the SCHIP program, sending it on to President Bush.