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The SCHIP Hits the Fan

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 25, 2007; 1:00 PM

President Bush may be courting the ultimate presidential indignity -- a Congressional override -- with his threatened veto of a bill to expand poor children's health care access, which many members of his own party enthusiastically support.

Bush is still able to bully Congressional Democrats when it comes to the war and national security. But, in the realm of domestic politics, he's the archetypal lame duck. About the only power he has left is the veto -- and then, only if he can maintain enough Republican backing to sustain it.

Yet, astonishingly enough, Bush not only remains dead-set on vetoing the popular child health-care initiative, he's once again pushing a dead-on-arrival proposal to give tax breaks to people who buy private insurance. Even some leading Republicans are agog.

Jonathan Weisman and Christopher Lee write in The Washington Post: "A senior Senate Republican accused President Bush yesterday of holding a bipartisan expansion of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program hostage to his broader policy goals of using tax deductions to help people afford private health insurance coverage.

"With a five-year, $35 billion expansion of the children's health insurance program due for a final vote in the House today, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and White House aides agreed that Bush's opposition to the legislation stems not from its price tag but from far larger health policy issues. The White House wants to use the issue of uninsured children to resurrect the president's long-dormant proposals to change the federal tax code to help the uninsured, adults and children alike, Grassley said, calling that a laudable goal but unrealistic politically.

"'The president has a goal that I share, that we need to take care of the uninsured through private health insurance,' said Grassley, relating a sharp conversation he had with Bush on Thursday morning. 'But you can't put that on this bill.'

"'It's bad policy,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said of the children's health bill. 'Why should we go along with bad policy if we've got something better?'"

The bill appears to have a veto-proof majority in the Senate, but not necessarily in the House.

Weisman and Lee explain: "Perhaps two dozen or more House Republicans are likely to vote for the bill today, GOP leadership aides said, far more than the five who voted for a more ambitious House version on Aug. 1, which included cuts in subsidies for private Medicare plans. But that would still be well short of the 60 or so that would be needed to override Bush's threatened veto."

How alone are Bush and his backers on this issue? Weisman and Lee note that even "America's Health Insurance Plans, the largest insurance lobbying group, endorsed the measure yesterday, undercutting Bush's contention that the bill is a step away from private insurance and toward government-run health care."

Robert Pear and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "Supporters of the legislation, which has broad bipartisan support, mobilized lobbyists -- 400 from the American Cancer Society alone -- and began advertising to win the votes needed to override a veto threatened by Mr. Bush. . . .

"Administration officials said they were concerned that the White House was being hurt by televised news reports that portrayed the fight as a struggle between Mr. Bush and poor children, rather than as a philosophical debate over the role of government in health care."

Indeed. Consider some of the evening-news coverage of Bush's press conference last week, which he kicked off with a spirited attack on the expansion. Rather than leading with Bush's characterizations, CBS News's Jim Axelrod focused on Christina Brassi, whose ten-month-old daughter was "one of more than 6 million poor kids nationwide covered by the state children's health insurance program, or SCHIP." ABC's Martha Raddatz profiled Susan Dick, who "depends on the so-called SCHIP program for her two sons, both of whom have asthma. The family income is too low for private insurance too high for Medicaid."

Gail Russell Chaddock writes in the Christian Science Monitor that "with access to healthcare becoming a top issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, the skirmish over a relatively modest program, originally launched with bipartisan support, is becoming a proxy fight for larger, more divisive matters."

And, she writes, "the looming standoff will be especially tough for Republicans, who do not want to head into 2008 elections having to defend a vote against insuring poor children."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "This week's showdown over children's health insurance is the first skirmish in the new battle for universal health coverage. It is also the first confrontation between the president and Congress fought out almost entirely on terms set by the new Democratic majority.

"On no spending issue do Democrats have broader public support -- or more Republican allies -- than on expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program. That is why they have chosen this as the issue on which they want to take their first stand."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush accused Congressional Democrats of putting health coverage for poor children at risk by forcing him to veto a bill that he says is a dangerous step toward government-run health care. The opposite is the case. Mr. Bush is the one putting the health of America's children at risk. . . .

"We can only hope that fair-minded members of Congress will pass the compromise measure by veto-proof majorities this week. Otherwise, millions of low- and middle-income children would be denied access to a program that has played a critical role in reducing the number of uninsured children over the past decade."

Social Security Redux?

Was the White House yesterday also trying to revive its proposals to partially privatize Social Security? Not really, no.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration stepped up its attempt to build support for restructuring Social Security yesterday, saying in a Treasury Department report what it has said elsewhere: that the popular program will require either tax increases or cuts in benefits to remain viable in its current form."

But Fletcher adds: "Given the coming presidential election and Bush's unpopularity, administration officials have all but abandoned hopes of enacting an overhaul of Social Security before the president's term ends in 16 months. . . . [Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.] has said he would consider it an achievement if he could remove some partisanship from the debate, [Michele Davis, a Treasury spokeswoman,] said."

Budget, Continued

In the Los Angeles Times, Maura Reynolds and Richard Simon predict a possible veto override in the case of a water bill.

"During Bush's first term, he did not veto a single bill. In the last 14 months, he has vetoed three: two that would have loosened restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research and one that tied money for the Iraq war to a withdrawal timeline.

"Democrats have not been able to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto. But a $23-billion water bill that the Senate approved Monday might be the first to jump that hurdle -- and test Bush's resolve on spending disputes.

"The bill passed 81 to 12, easily surpassing the two-thirds threshold. Thirty-six Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the bill, which authorizes a raft of projects sought by lawmakers from both parties. The funding, however, still would have to be appropriated in separate spending bills.

"The measure passed the House this year on a 381-40 vote and now goes to Bush -- who has said he will veto it."

David Rogers of the Wall Street Journal still sees the Democrats on the defensive: "As the new fiscal year starts and Congress prepares for a fight over government spending, Democrats are faced with this unhappy fact: President Bush could both block their domestic priorities and corner them into funding a war they want to end."

Who Was That Man?

His face grim, looking and sounding ever so much like his father, Bush this morning shelved the triumphalist rhetoric about Iraq and the bellicose talk about Iran in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. Facing a historically tough crowd, Bush instead quoted extensively from the UN's own Declaration of Human Rights, boldly coming out for freedom and education and against hunger, disease and poverty.

There was some righteous finger-pointing, but it was largely at regimes even less popular than his own with that audience, such as Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan.

Bush's toughest language was for Burma: "Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma," he said, despite the fact that most Americans probably don't even know what Burma is.

Middle East Peace (Non) Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush expressed confidence Monday that his vision of a Palestinian state is still 'achievable' . . .

"Arriving here for a three-day visit marking the opening of the annual U.N. General Assembly session, Bush met with Palestinian leaders and former British prime minister Tony Blair, now serving as a Middle East envoy, to build support for a regional peace conference this fall. But the White House reported no breakthroughs amid disagreements over the conference's agenda and participants. . . .

"The intense effort by Bush and his team to seek resolution of the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian dispute in the dwindling months of his administration underlines a desire to build a legacy that goes beyond the battle with international terrorists and the Iraq war. The conference Bush plans for November, probably in Washington, would be the first such major effort since President George H.W. Bush's conference in Madrid in 1991. It remains a work in progress, with various parties outlining different goals and an unsettled invitation list."

Here is the transcript from Bush's photo op with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; here is the transcript of a White House press briefing on their meeting.

No Change on Climate Change

Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post: "U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that a 15-year international effort to stem global warming has not halted the buildup of greenhouse gas emissions and that governments must take 'unprecedented action' to reverse the trend.

"'Today, the time for doubt has passed,' Ban told delegates at a U.N. conference on climate change that brought together more than 80 heads of state, former vice president Al Gore and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Ban organized Monday's meeting to build political momentum for negotiations set for December in Bali, Indonesia, on a new treaty, which is expected to impose deep cuts on emissions of heat-trapping gases by industrial powers."

But as Charles J. Hanley writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration showed no sign, however, that it would reverse its stand against mandatory emission cuts endorsed by 175 other nations. Some expressed fears the White House, with its own forum later this week, would launch talks rivaling the U.N. climate treaty negotiations.

"President Bush didn't take part in the day's sessions, which drew more than 80 national leaders, but attended a small dinner Monday evening, a gathering of key climate players."

Speaking of Climate Change

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush's transportation secretary, Mary Peters, with White House approval, personally directed a lobbying campaign to urge governors and two dozen House members to block California's first-in-the-nation limits on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks, according to e-mails obtained by Congress.

"The e-mails show Peters worked closely with the top opponents in Congress of California's emissions law and sought out governors from auto-producing states, who were seen as likely to oppose the state's request that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allow the new rules to go into effect.

"'The administration is trying to stack the deck against California's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions,' House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, wrote Monday to the White House. 'It suggests that political considerations - not the merits of the issue - will determine how EPA acts.'

"Waxman released the e-mails, which are available on the committee's Web site, along with his letter to the White House. The documents show that the idea to launch the lobbying effort started with Peters."

Bubble Watch (Iraq Edition)

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Civil war has been averted in Iraq and Iranian intervention there has 'ceased to exist,' Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday.

"'I can't say there is a picture of roses and flowers in Iraq,' Maliki told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. 'However, I can say that the greatest victory, of which I am proud . . . is stopping the explosion of a sectarian war.' That possibility, he said, 'is now far away.'"

Neil McFarquhar writes in the New York Times that Maliki "attended a traditional Ramadan feast at a Queens mosque last night, telling a multinational crowd from Iraq, Iran, India and beyond that the enemy bringing down the minarets of Shiite mosques in Iraq was the same enemy who brought down the World Trade Center. . . .

"[S]ome of the faithful asked when Iraq would be peaceful enough for them to visit. . . .

"'When will Najaf be safe enough to make the pilgrimage?' yelled out Azzam Mirza, a 60-year-old Indian-American.

"'You can come with us now!' responded the prime minister.

"'He said he wanted to visit, not to die there,' quipped Sheik Husham Al-Husainy, a visiting cleric from Dearborn."

Conflicting Statistics

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Apparent contradictions are relatively easy to find in the flood of bar charts and trend lines the military produces. Civilian casualty numbers in the Pentagon's latest quarterly report on Iraq last week, for example, differ significantly from those presented by the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his recent congressional testimony. Petraeus's chart was limited to numbers of dead, while the Pentagon combined the numbers of dead and wounded -- a figure that should be greater. Yet Petraeus's numbers were higher than the Pentagon's for the months preceding this year's increase of U.S. troops to Iraq, and lower since U.S. operations escalated this summer.

"The charts are difficult to compare: Petraeus used monthly figures on a line graph, while the Pentagon computed 'Average Daily Casualties' on a bar chart, and neither included actual numbers. But the numerical differences are still stark, and the reasons offered can be hard to parse."

Bush Looks to the Long Term

Bill Sammon, adapting part of his new book, 'The Evangelical President,' for the Washington Examiner, writes: "President Bush is quietly providing back-channel advice to Hillary Rodham Clinton, urging her to modulate her rhetoric so she can effectively prosecute the war in Iraq if elected president. . . .

"White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said Bush has 'been urging candidates: "Don't get yourself too locked in where you stand right now. If you end up sitting where I sit, things could change dramatically." '

"Bolten said Bush wants enough continuity in his Iraq policy that 'even a Democratic president would be in a position to sustain a legitimate presence there.'"

Sammon also quotes a "senior White House official" as saying: "One of two things will happen if a Democrat gets elected president. They will either have to withdraw U.S. troops in order to remain true to the rhetoric -- in which case, any consequences in the aftermath fall on their heads. Or they have to break their word, in which case they encourage fratricide on the left of their party. Now that's a thorny issue to work through."

And unlike Bush, according to Sammon: "Vice President Dick Cheney was philosophical about the possibility of a Democratic president fundamentally reversing the policies that he and Bush have worked so hard to implement in Iraq.

"'It's the nature of the business, in a sense,' he shrugged during an interview in his West Wing office. 'I mean, you get two terms. We were fortunate to get two terms. And I think we'll increasingly see a lot of emphasis on deciding who the next occupant of the Oval Office is going to be.'"

Not God's Choice?

Talking to Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes on Fox News, Sammon discussed the central theme of the book: "I talked a lot about his faith with him and with his top advisers. And they all told me that it gives him a serenity.

"Not that he's taking marching orders from God, as to how much money to put into the highway bill or, you know, whether he's here a messianic figure, as some of his detractors claim, that he feels he's a messianic figure here to, you know -- anointed by God to avenge the victims of 9/11.

"It merely gives him the serenity to . . . carry forth in very, very tumultuous times and difficult, you know, low poll numbers and that kind of thing." . . .

Colmes: "Your book is called the 'Evangelical President'. Do you he believe he is God's chosen president, that he is appointed by God to run the country at this time?"

Sammon: "I really don't feel he does feel that way. He is a very religious man. He's unapologetically religious. He wears his religion on his sleeve. . . ."

Colmes: "But he doesn't believe he's God's choice?

Sammon: "No. Not only did he tell me that he doesn't believe that, but Dick Cheney told me, and Josh Bolten and Karl Rove and all these guys. He just doesn't think that way."

'Flavor of the Month'?

Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin write in the Examiner with more from Sammon's book: "Dick Cheney doesn't put much stock in the conventional wisdom that he is the most powerful vice president in American history. In fact, he jokes that he is more like 'the flavor of the month.'"

Slamming Obama

John D. McKinnon blogs for the Wall Street Journal on Sammon's story yesterday about Bush's prediction that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination.

McKinnon writes: "More surprising, perhaps, was the way administration officials dumped on her chief rival, Barack Obama. The article quotes a senior White House official saying that Obama relies too much on his charisma and even suggests the Illinois senator, a Harvard Law School graduate, hasn't done the hard work necessary to win."

Iran Watch

Here's national security adviser Stephen Hadley yesterday on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's U.S. appearances:

Question: "Do you have any reaction to the theme of what Ahmadinejad has been saying today; essentially that, why should we go to war, there is no war in the offing, we're not walking towards war with the United States? Are those comments in any way helpful?"

Hadley: "Look, what would be helpful is for Iranian officials to give some direction so that they would stop the movement of equipment into Iraq, and training people in Iraq who are killing innocent Iraqis, Iraqi security forces and our kids. What would be helpful is if Iran would get out of the business of supporting terror, and agree to what's been offered to them: to suspend their enrichments capability so we can sit down and negotiate a resolution to the nuclear issue, that would give the Iranian people an opportunity for a truly peaceful civil nuclear program, and reassure the international community they're not trying to find a nuclear weapon. And it would be nice for this regime to give their people more of an opportunity to participate in government. "

David Paul Kuhn writes for Politico.com that some unspecified number of months ago: "President Bush and Karl Rove sat listening to Norman Podhoretz for roughly 45 minutes at the White House as the patriarch of neoconservatism argued that the United States should bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. . . .

"Rove was silent throughout, though he took notes. The president listened diligently, Podhoretz said as he recounted the conversation months later, but he 'didn't tip his hand.'

"'I did say to [the president], that people ask: Why are you spending all this time negotiating sanctions? Time is passing. I said, my friend [Robert] Kagan wrote a column which he said you were giving "futility its chance." And both he and Karl Rove burst out laughing.

"'It struck me,' Podhoretz added, 'that if they really believed that there was a chance for these negotiations and sanctions to work, they would not have laughed. They would have got their backs up and said, "No, no, it's not futile, there's a very good chance."'"

Bubble Watch (U.S. Edition)

Jane Smiley blogs for Huffingtonpost.com: "Looking at the hysteria caused by the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York and Columbia University, I would like to dare George Bush to reciprocate the visit. And I would like to dare the Iranians to let him. It doesn't matter what Ahmadinejad actually says. What matters is that he is entering the territory of a president who has openly vowed to put him out of business, and has dared to speak, indeed, has dared to give what appears to be his honest opinions. And he has been confronted by protesters and by irate news commentators (such as Scott Pelley). Would Bush allow the same sorts of confrontations? I doubt it. He doesn't even allow himself to confronted by Americans who disagree with him."

Federal Government Competence Watch

I got a lot of positive reaction to yesterday's column about the the Bush administration's effect on federal government competence.

One reader forwarded this fascinating story by Shane Harris in National Journal a few months ago: "On November 2, 2004, top officials from the Homeland Security Department held a small Election Night party at a Washington restaurant to watch the presidential election returns come in on television. Nearly every leader there owed his job to the man then fighting for his own job -- George W. Bush.

"The department was almost two years old and run almost entirely by political appointees. Twenty-three months earlier, they had been tapped to lash together 22 disparate, frequently dysfunctional agencies, some of whose failures to safeguard domestic security contributed to the 9/11 attacks.

"As the returns trickled in, there was an hour or so when it appeared that Bush's Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, might overtake him in the electoral vote count. Rather suddenly, some partygoers recalled, it dawned on them that they might be out of a job.

"As they looked around the room, they realized they hadn't fully considered who would replace them. Who, they wondered, would keep the department running while President-elect Kerry picked a new leadership team? What career officials, whose posts are designed to outlast any one administration, would step in to ensure that planes flew safely, that borders were patrolled, that the government could respond swiftly to a natural disaster? No one could say for sure, because DHS had no plan."

Stay Away

Donald Trump tells CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "I think President Bush has to go into a corner and hide if a Republican is going to get elected."

Liz Sidoti wrote recently for the Associated Press: "Republican presidential candidates can't be any more clear: President Bush isn't welcome on the campaign trail.

"Competing to succeed him, top GOP candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain barely utter Bush's name. They essentially ignore the lame-duck president, or give him only passing credit, as they rail against the status quo and promise to fix problems he hasn't solved. . . .

"The candidates are walking a fine line. They are trying to tap into the deep discontent those voters feel about the state of the country without alienating any who hold Bush in high regard. At the same time, they have to counter the Democrats' powerful arguments for a new direction.

"How candidates handle the 800-pound elephant in the room now could have implications beyond the primary. Privately, Republican strategists agree their nominee will lose next fall if the general election is a referendum on Bush."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush and climate change.

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