This vote was on an amendment by John Kerry, D-Mass., that would increase funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) by $15 billion, for a total of $75.2 billion over five years. The amendment would use the extra money to pay states bonuses for enrolling more children in the program, and to raise the cutoff date for enrollment to 21. Kerry’s amendment would pay for all of this by raising taxes on people whose taxable incomes exceed $1 million.
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. The amendment was offered to a bill that would reauthorize SCHIP and expand the program’s funding by about $35 billion over the life of the bill.
Kerry admitted at the outset that he believed his amendment would fail, but said that he wanted to present his amendment and talk about it anyway because it is so important. He said those who argue that $50 billion is too much for the SCHIP program should re-evaluate the other things Congress spends federal money on.
“We are saying we cannot afford to cover children to the tune of an additional $15 billion over 5 years, but we can give $43 billion of tax cuts next year to people earning more than $1 million a year. That is obscene. It is ridiculous. It has absolutely no basis in economic argument, and it certainly has no basis in any kind of moral or decent argument,” Kerry said.
The program is intended to be a health insurance safety net for poor children, but states have been given significant flexibility to design their own benefit packages, within certain guidelines. Some states use SCHIP funds to provide health coverage to very poor adults as well as children, or to cover children from families whose incomes are more robust than SCHIP would otherwise allow. Republicans are strongly opposed to this practice, and worry that it represents one step closer toward establishing another large new health-care entitlement program along the lines of Medicaid.
Not only did Kerry’s amendment not discourage states from covering adults or families that make more money, it would encourage states to cover as many children as possible, up to the age of 21.
Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, urged that Kerry’s amendment be defeated, and the underlying bill be approved as it stands. Grassley said he wanted to do more than what was contained in the underlying bill, but that during drafting it, they ran into many “rude awakenings.”
“I am sure we both—from Senator Kerry’s point of view and from my point of view—went into this whole discussion with a great deal of good intent and finding out that it may be a little more difficult than we anticipated,” Grassley said. “I am begging Senator Kerry to understand— [the underlying bill] is the best of the possible. The left wants more; the right wanted a lot less. We can make speeches or make legislation. Making speeches does not get any kids covered. Making legislation does. Our compromise does that.”
By a vote of 36-60, the Senate rejected Kerry’s amendment. All but one Republican present voted against the amendment (Susan Collins of Maine). Of Democrats present, 33 voted for the amendment (including all of the most progressive members of the Senate), and 14 voted against it. The end result is that the bill went forward without language that would have increased funding for SCHIP by $15 billion, provided bonuses to states for covering as many children as possible, and allowing coverage up to age 21.