WASHINGTON - President Bush insisted to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday that he is going ahead with his promised veto of a major expansion of a children's health program despite its overwhelming approval by Congress.
Pelosi, Democrat of California, said she told Bush in a morning phone call that she was praying he would change his mind. "I think I have to pray a little harder," she told reporters moments later, at a Capitol ceremony where Democrats celebrated the passage of the proposed $35 billion increase in the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
It is doubtful that any new arguments were made in what Pelosi called "a friendly, friendly conversation." She said she reminded Bush that many Republicans voted to raise tobacco taxes to fund a program expansion and that many governors from both parties support it.
"He said he liked people who don't give up," Pelosi said, but he also made it clear he is not backing down.
Dana Perino, White House press secretary, confirmed Pelosi's account.
"What he did say is, 'I'm going to veto this bill, and after that, let's see if we can sit down and come to a compromise,' " Perino said.
Congress and Bush have agreed to fund SCHIP, at its current level, at least through mid-November.
Aware that the issue could be potentially explosive politically, the White House released a day early the part of the president's radio address that deals with the insurance program. In the address, Bush urged lawmakers to "work out a more responsible approach."
"Congressional leaders have put forward an irresponsible plan that would dramatically expand this program beyond its original intent," he said in the remarks, which were taped yesterday and are to be aired today. "And they know I will veto it."
Eighteen Republicans joined a solid Democratic block Thursday when the Senate voted 67 to 29 for the $35 billion expansion. The House passed the bill Tuesday, 265 to 159, with 45 Republicans voting for it.
A veto override requires a two-thirds' majority vote in both chambers, a threshold Republicans say they can prevent in the House. Bush probably will receive the legislation next week, lawmakers said.
Bush has proposed a $5 billion increase in SCHIP, which now covers 6.6 million children from modest-income families not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. The bill Congress passed this week, he said, is too costly, goes beyond the program's original intent, and shifts too much insurance burden on the government rather than private providers.
Analysts say the legislation would allow about 4 million of the estimated 9 million uninsured children in the United States to gain coverage.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said SCHIP should be focused on children from families with incomes that fall below twice the federal poverty level - $34,340 for a family of three.