SCHIP Expansion: Congressional Majority Surrenders Completely

Congressional Democrats’ cave-in on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) last week was of a Utah mine disaster magnitude.  Instead of creating a middle-class entitlement program — and using it as a vehicle for Sen. Durbin’s illegal alien amnesty “DREAM Act” — Democrats settled for extending the current SCHIP program until March 31, 2009.

Democrats crafted the proposed $35 billion expansion of SCHIP to expand federally funded health care and to score political points against Republicans who appeared  vulnerable on health care issues. However, when House Democratic leaders responded to President Bush’s second veto of the SCHIP expansion plan by scheduling the vote to override Bush’s action for January 23 — six weeks from the December 12 veto — rather than calling for immediate action failure on the proposed expansion became all but a foregone conclusion. “Republicans will stick together and…will sustain the President’s veto,” a senior House Republican staffer told me shortly after the President Bush sent the SCHIP legislation back to Congress. “We’ll have enough votes for that.”

According to Reuters, “Democrats had hoped for a short-term extension of the program so they would be able reopen the battle before the November 2008 presidential and congressional elections.” Clearly, the Democrat leadership realized that what had previously looked like a winning issue for them was not as much of a legislative and electoral slam-dunk as many had thought. The White House reacted favorably:  “We are pleased that the Congress passed legislation to extend SCHIP until March 31, 2009 — and did so without raising taxes,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino. “With this bill, we can be assured that children will continue to have coverage, and Democrats won’t be able to play election-year politics with children’s health.”

Even more impressive than the majority party’s public surrender on SCHIP expansion was the speed and completeness of it. Less than a week after falling victim to Bush’s veto pen for a second time, the Senate had passed the fifteen-month extension by unanimous consent, and the House had approved it by a 411-3 vote.

The hysterical tenor of some floor speeches showed the Democrats’ desperation. “How many children will be dead” if the President were to veto the SCHIP expansion? asked Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX). “The Axis of Evil isn’t just in the Middle East, it’s just down here on Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA). “President Bush used his cruel veto pen to say ‘I forbid 10 million children from getting the health benefits they deserve’," added House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) after the first SCHIP veto was handed down. 

Judging by “the Democrat rhetoric earlier this fall,” a highly placed Republican staffer told me, it was clear that “they were confident of massively expanding the program.” Not only did that “not occur in any way,” but there weren’t even “able to generate public support for their proposals.” Tellingly, the final outcome on the issue was a 511-3 vote in favor of simply extending the current program — a result which shows a sudden drop in the level of concern for “how many children will be dead” among the otherwise hysterical Democrats.

Also included in the bill was an emergency extension of current pay rates for doctors serving Medicare patients. The 10% physician pay cut that had been scheduled to go into effect at the beginning of 2008 had caused many doctors to consider recouping that lost income from their non-Medicare patients, or dropping Medicare patients from their caseloads altogether. The reduced compensation would not be “enough to keep pace with the escalating cost of doing business,” according to the American Medical Association.

 Dealing with the looming dip in doctor pay —  tied to the economy — is an annual exercise that receives “quick fixes” every year. Unfortunately, simply applying another band-aid just serves to “compound the problem,” according to a spokesman for the Ohio State Medical Association.

Under the bill passed this week, pay for doctors treating Medicare patients will increase 0.5% on January 1. That level of compensation will last until June 30, at which time the scheduled rate cut will occur. However, unlike SCHIP, lawmakers plan to address the Medicare situation early in 2008. "The purpose of moving forward with a six-month package now,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) “is to provide the opportunity for the Finance Committee to address these priorities next year.”

The same cannot be said for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. What was obviously an over-hyped emotional issue for Democrats this year has, rather cavalierly, been passed off to another Congress — and to another President.