Children's health debate moves to Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Legislation that would increase spending for children's health care has lost support from some key Senate Republicans, but they acknowledged that they probably can't do much to block the effort.

Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said Democrats lost his support for the estimated $32 billion spending increase when they sought to extend coverage to children of legal immigrants and did not take certain steps to prevent higher-income people from participating in the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

Grassley sided with Democrats two years ago and tried to help them overcome two vetoes by President Bush. He said he felt like he had been "thrown overboard" as Democrats rush to give President-elect Barack Obama an early victory on health care.

"Next week we will have a president who will sign the SCHIP legislation," Grassley said.

The additional spending sought for SCHIP would provide government-sponsored coverage to an additional 4 million uninsured children. About 7 million people are now in the program.

Democratic senators countered that a bill being considered in the Senate Finance Committee Thursday was quite comparable to legislation that had broad support in 2007. President Bush vetoed that legislation.

"But then the American people spoke," said Sen. Max Baucus, the Finance Committee's chairman. "And now, with strong support from President-elect Obama, we will finally be able to respond."

In the House on Wednesday, 40 Republicans joined Democrats in passing a spending increase for the children's health program. The vote was 289-139.

The bill would raise the federal excise tax on cigarettes by 61 cents to $1 a pack to pay for the SCHIP expansion. The bill before the Finance Committee also calls for the tobacco tax increase.

Obama said he hoped the Senate acts with the "same sense of urgency so that it can be one of the first measures I sign into law when I am president."

"In this moment of crisis, ensuring that every child in America has access to affordable health care is not just good economic policy, but a moral obligation we hold as parents and citizens," he said.

Democrats would like to send a House-Senate compromise to Obama for his signature as an early victory signifying the party's control of both the White House and Congress for the first time since 1994.

"This is only the beginning of the change we will achieve with our new president," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who got a congratulatory call from Obama after Wednesday's vote.

In reviewing the House bill, the Congressional Budget Office projected that nearly 83 percent of the 4.1 million uninsured children who would gain coverage are in families with incomes below current eligibility limits. About 700,000 children would gain coverage because their states broadened eligibility.

Most of the children who gain coverage live in families with incomes of less than twice the federal poverty level - $42,400 for a family of four, analysts said. However, some states have expanded their programs to cover families with incomes as high as three times the federal poverty level - or $63,600 for a family of four.

Republicans pointed to budget office estimates that the bill would shift more than 2 million children currently with private coverage to government-provided care.

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On the Net:

State Children's Health Insurance Program: http://www.cms.hhs.gov/home/schip.asp

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