WASHINGTON (JTA) – Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, promised she would haunt President Bush “again and again and again” with children’s health insurance legislation.
Jewish groups have been doing their best to join the ghostly chorus.
Representatives of Jewish organizations have been working the phones the past two weeks in an effort to line up the 290 votes needed in the House to override Bush’s veto of a measure that would extend and boost funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Twice during those two weeks, however, Democratic leaders have fallen short, despite support from dozens of Republicans.
Still, the setbacks are not deterring a broad coalition of Jewish groups who want the program renewed and expanded.
“No Jewish groups I know are opposed to it,” said Hadar Susskind, the Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body of national public policy groups and local Jewish communities across the country. “I think it’s absolutely a moral issue. It’s absolutely unconscionable that we’re the richest society in the history of the world and we’re letting children go without health care.”
S-CHIP, established in 1997 and one of the signal successes of the Clinton years, is due for a reauthorization this year. The progam, aimed at families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford health insurance, reaches about 5 million to 6 million children.
Democrats want to more than double the program’s budget, from $30 billion to $65 billion over five years, with the hope of reaching another 3 million to 4 million children.
Bush wants to add $5 billion over five years, which at half the health insurance inflation rate would force cuts.
The president says some states are exploiting the program by not limiting it to families that earn twice the poverty rate – $41,000 annually for a family of four. A number of states have raised that ceiling by 50 percent or 100 percent, saying twice the poverty rate standard is not a realistic cap in major cities where rents and real estate continue to soar.
Some GOP opponents of the proposed expansion have painted it as a veiled effort to march the country toward socialized medicine – a claim rejected by Democrats and some Republicans.
The Senate passed the expansion by a veto-proof 67-39 vote. Among those voting in favor were the Senate’s only two Jewish Republicans, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
Such margins underscore the substantial Republican support the expansion has, and Pelosi hopes to chip away at the House’s GOP stalwarts as congressional elections loom – hence her pledge to “haunt” Bush the first time the bill passed on Sept. 25. Bush vetoed that bill on Oct. 10.
Several Jewish Republicans have come forward to back the Bush veto, including U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the deputy minority whip.
In an op-ed for JTA, Michael David Epstein, the vice chairman of the legislative affairs committee at the Republican Jewish Coalition, wrote: “Even before the program’s original mission of covering needy children has been accomplished, congressional Democrats propose to spend SCHIP funds on adults – even childless ones.”
The JCPA has led the Jewish community’s charge for S-CHIP on Capitol Hill. The umbrella group sent activists to meet with Congress members before the failed Oct. 18 override bid. Back during the August recess, the JCPA mobilized its members to meet with their representatives in their home districts nationwide.
On Oct. 25, the House considered a version of the legislation that was substantively the same as the first one it approved, although in an effort to win over detractors, language was added to clarify that the program would not finance health care for adults, illegal immigrants or high-income families.
Susskind said that in the time he has been monitoring the S-CHIP program, Congress has spent $17 million investigating whether illegal immigrants are taking advantage of the program, and has found only eight such scofflaws.
“That’s an exceedingly poor return on your money,” he said of the investigations.
The Union for Reform Judaism, which represents 900 congregations, and the National Council of Jewish Women also have been pushing hard for the major boost in S-CHIP funding.
In contrast to the women’s council, which blasted Bush, the fervently Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America favors working with the White House to arrive at a compromise that the president would not feel compelled to veto.
Agudah generally sides with Bush on social issues, but represents a constituency of large middle-class families trying hard to make ends meet.
The United Jewish Communities, the national arm of the network of local Jewish charitable federations, also backs the expansion of S-CHIP.