WASHINGTON - President Bush vetoed legislation yesterday that would have expanded government-provided health insurance for children, his second slap-down of a bipartisan effort in Congress to dramatically increase funding for the popular program.
It was Bush's seventh veto in seven years - all but one coming since Democrats took control of Congress in January. Yesterday was the deadline for Bush to act or let the bill become law. The president also vetoed an earlier, similar bill expanding the program.
Bush vetoed the bill in private.
In a statement notifying Congress of his decision, Bush said the bill was unacceptable because - like the first one - it allows adults into the program, would cover people in families with incomes above the US median, and raises taxes.
"This bill does not put poor children first, and it moves our country's healthcare system in the wrong direction," Bush's statement said. "Ultimately, our nation's goal should be to move children who have no health insurance to private coverage, not to move children who already have private health insurance to government coverage."
Bush urged Congress to extend the program at its current funding level before lawmakers leave Washington for their break.
In fact, congressional leaders had already said earlier yesterday that they now will try only to extend the State Children's Health Insurance Program well into 2008 in basically its current form. Their comments signaled that they have given up efforts to substantially expand the program.
The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate by a veto-proof margin, but the same was not true in the House. Even after the bill was approved, negotiations continued to find a compromise version that would attract enough Republican lawmakers for a two-thirds vote to override Bush's expected veto.
That effort was unsuccessful.
The bill Bush vetoed would have increased federal funding for SCHIP by $35 billion over five years, to add an estimated 4 million people to the program that provides insurance coverage for children from families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford private insurance. The joint federal-state program currently provides benefits to about 6 million people, mostly children.
A major point of contention with the White House was Bush's demand that nearly all eligible children be found and enrolled before any in slightly higher-income families could be covered.
The president also has opposed using an increased tobacco tax to fund the expansion. The bill includes a 61-cent rise on a package of cigarettes.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said the House will take up the extension question today in a bill that also will make adjustments to Medicare.