Friday, July 20, 2007

Bush Reaffirms Veto Threat Over SCHIP Despite Strong Republican Support for Bipartisan Compromise—What’s Really Going On Here?

The most exasperated person in Washington has to be Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The Ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee has worked out a bipartisan compromise with his good friend Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) to continue the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) past its September 30 expiration date.

The plan currently covers 6.6 million low income kids and would cover another 3.3 million under the plan that would increase spending by $35 billion over five years and pay for it with a new 61 cent per pack tobacco tax.

But President Bush says he will veto the deal because he worries that it is a dangerous expansion of government-run health care.

Not only is Grassley exasperated over that comment but so is about everyone else in Washington. This is a truly bipartisan deal with the Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly approving it with plenty of Republican support.

What makes this so puzzling is that Bush’s stance is out of synch with the facts and his own health care track record:
  1. The President has called for expansion of health insurance since he took office through assistance for the poor to buy health insurance in the private market. SCHIP is largely provided through private insurance companies—public funding of private coverage albeit without a choice of different plans by the consumer. Private insurance companies support the deal because setting up Part D-like multiple choices for kids is not practical.
  2. A centerpiece of the Bush administration is the Medicare Part D drug plan for seniors—government financed and provided through private insurers.
  3. The Bush administration has approved one state waiver after another allowing states to expand the program beyond its original intent. The Bush administration just approved such a big expansion in Wisconsin. The Senate deal would go a long way toward eliminating the "over expansion" Bush has been complaining about.
The Part D drug benefit was the biggest expansion of a government health care program since Medicare was passed in 1965—and Bush sees it as a big victory. SCHIP is maybe a tenth the size of Part D and largely delivered through private insurers who have to competitively bid the contract and Bush says it’s opening “an avenue for people to switch from private insurance to government.” Never mind that there is no "switch" involved here because they are almost always uninsured to begin with.

The President also says he wants to have a discussion over his proposal to change the way health benefits are taxed with an eye toward giving consumers more individual control over their health care. OK. But that general idea has been around for 15 years and he never made that proposal in the six years he had a Republican Congress who would have been a great deal more supportive of the idea then the current Democratic Congress.

What’s really going on here?

My sense is that this President has decided he needs a whopper of a political fight with the Democrats to recharge his flagging presidency and he’s decided to take them on over his view that Democrats would like to “socialize health care" in the U.S. Apparently, his political advisers are telling him the “socialized health care” line is still a good one with mainstream voters.

Never mind the fact that many Republicans—including Grassley and Orin Hatch (R-UT) who are key authors of the compromise and plenty of other Senate Republicans--are onside.

In an earlier post I said that it looks to me like we have a desperate President with nothing to lose as he tries to get his administration back on track in its last year.

I also made the point that it looks to me like Bush is willing to finally veto lots of spending bills—he didn’t veto any Republican spending bills during his first six years.

Is this just the opening round in a bigger fight from a President willing to have a government shutdown battle with the Congress to reassert his presidency?

In 1995, the roles were reversed. Democrat Clinton was looking to reassert his flagging presidency just as just as Republican Gingrich was looking to make a new Congressional majority dominant. Is Bush taking a page from Bill Clinton's game book?

Is Bush trying to make himself "relevant" again?
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