WASHINGTON (AP) -- House Democrats were unable Thursday to override President Bush's veto of their pre-election year effort to expand a popular government health insurance program to cover 10 million children.
The bill had bipartisan support but the 273-156 roll call was 13 votes short of the two-thirds that majority supporters needed to enact the bill into law over Bush's objections. The bill had passed the Senate with a veto-proof margin.
The State Children's Health Insurance Program now subsidizes health care insurance coverage for about 6 million children at a cost of about $5 billion a year. The vetoed bill would have added 4 million more children, most of them from low-income families, to the program at an added cost of $7 billion annually.
To pay for the increase, the bill would have raised the federal tax on cigarettes from 39 cents to $1.00 a pack.
"This is not about an issue. It's about a value," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said just before the vote. "For the cost of less than 40 days in Iraq, we can provide SCHIP coverage for 10 million children for one year."
Forty-four Republicans voted to override Bush's veto - one fewer than GOP members who voted Sept. 25 to pass the bill. Only two Democrats voted to sustain Bush's veto compared with six who had voted against the bill. The two were Reps. Jim Marshall of Georgia and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.
"We won this round on SCHIP," White House press secretary Dana Perino said after the vote. She said a million-dollar lobbying campaign by several labor unions and advocacy groups to turn enough Republican votes for a successful override "didn't work."
Bush, anticipating that his veto would stand, has assigned three top advisers to try to negotiate a new deal with Congress. One of them, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said: "It's now time for us to get to the hard work of finding a solution and get SCHIP reauthorized. We also have a larger task, to provide every American with the means of having an insurance policy."
Republican opponents said the bill would encourage too many middle-income families to substitute government-subsidized insurance for their private insurance. The bill gives states financial incentives to cover families with incomes up to three times the federal poverty level - $61,950 for a family of four.
"That's not low-income. That's a majority of households in America," said Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif.
The bill specifically states that illegal immigrants would remain ineligible for the children's program, but Republicans seized on a section that would allow families to provide a Social Security number to indicate citizenship. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said it's too easy to get a false number, which would give an opening for thousands of illegal immigrants to enroll.
But Democrats said the bill's original focus remained intact. States would be given bonuses for signing up low-income children already eligible for the program but not enrolled.
"Under current law, these boys and girls are entitled to their benefits," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. "Continuing to not provide them with coverage is a travesty."
The president said his veto gives him a chance to weigh in on the future of the program.
"Sometimes the legislative branch wants to go on without the president, pass pieces of legislation and the president can then use the veto to make sure he's a part of the process," Bush said Wednesday.
Leading the discussions for his administration are Mike Leavitt, the health and human services secretary; Al Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council; and Jim Nussle, the White House budget chief.
Supporters of the bill said they already had compromised in winning passage of the bill last month in both houses. The House originally had proposed a $50 billion increase over five years.
The bill is bipartisan, and the Senate has shown it could override a veto. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has replied with an emphatic "no" when asked if he would seek a compromise with the administration.
Both the House and Senate have to override a veto for a bill to become law over a president's objection.
Through the program, the government and the states subsidize the cost of health coverage for families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance.
Bush has recommended a $1 billion annual increase in the program, bringing total spending over five years to $30 billion - half the level called for in the bill that he vetoed.
Proponents emphasized that the program still would focus on low-income families. Dingell said more than 90 percent of families covered have incomes that are below $41,300 for a family of four. That is the range that the program was originally designed to help.
"There will be no wealthy people covered," Dingell said.
Some public opinion polls indicate support for expanding the program. Sixty-one percent said Congress should override Bush's veto of a bill expanding the program, according to a CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll released Wednesday. Blacks were more likely than whites to favor overriding Bush's veto.
The bill is H.R. 976