Making Hay Over the Health Care Veto

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

President Geroge W. Bush

Democrat Eric Massa happened to be in Washington last week for a fund-raiser for his bid to challenge Rep. Randy Kuhl (pronounced "cool"), a Republican from upstate New York, for his seat next year, and he couldn't believe his good fortune. As his potential opponent voted against the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Plans (SCHIP), Massa felt like he was watching Kuhl commit "political suicide" for all to see on C-SPAN.

Massa wasted no time broadcasting Kuhl's vote in the district, which stretches from near Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border. The next night at a house party in Naples, New York, he told supporters how Kuhl's vote represented the worst of the Republican Party: solidarity with special interest groups and a rigid refusal to stray from the party line.

That party line, of course, is coming straight from the top, and many observers think it will come back to haunt the entire G.O.P. a year from now. While the bill passed both chambers of Congress with relatively strong bipartisan support, it failed to get enough votes in the House to override President Bush's veto, which he issued Wednesday morning. Bush insists the expanded program, by raising the income eligibility levels, would draw children away from private insurance plans and act as a first step toward socialized medicine. But Democrats know that ideological debates are no match for pictures of sick children, and they are already training their sights on eight vulnerable Republicans, including Kuhl, who voted against it. "It is a defining vote; it says a lot about people's values and priorities," said Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Democrats' priorities in this instance are abundantly clear — they intend on making as much political hay of the children's health care veto as they can, whether or not they can eventually turn enough Republicans to override it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has insisted he will continue to send the bill back to Bush's desk without modifying it for wavering Republicans, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has left the door open for changes. If the President vetoes the bill a hundred times between now and the 2008 elections the Democrats can portray the G.O.P. as voting against sick poor kids. If the G.O.P. caves, they can declare themselves the champions of children's health care and finally have a legislative accomplishment to boast about. Either way, they think they can't lose. "It's our hope that these members of Congress, when they hear from their constituents, that they'll choose children's health," Van Hollen said. "If not, voters will hold them accountable."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already running radio ads against Kuhl and his seven colleagues, in addition to automated phone calls and an e-mail campaign. "Congressman Kuhl has a simple choice: give 10 million children the health care they need or turn his back on those children," the radio announcer says in one spot. "Call Congressman Kuhl and tell him to stand with kids, NOT George Bush."

Republicans are not taking the attacks lying down. They point to other compromises on the issue that they have proposed, such as Bush's plan to expand the program by $25 billion instead of the $35 billion the Democrats want, and they accuse the Democrats of making SCHIP into a political football. Kuhl said he voted for a stopgap measure that extended the program, which was due to expire this week, by 45 days and is co-author of a bill that would further extend the current level of funding by eight months while Congress and the White House work out a compromise. "I'm not voting against health care for poor children, I'm voting for it," said Kuhl, who won reelection in 2004 with just 51.4 % of the vote. "The people who elected me didn't elect me to vote according to perception. They voted for me to do what's right."

House Minority Leader John Boehner stressed it was a Republican Congress that created the popular program in the first place a decade ago. But "it's irresponsible to use a program designed for children as a trial balloon for government-run health care in this country, especially when we still have low-income kids who need to be identified and covered," Boehner told TIME.

The proposed $35 billion SCHIP expansion is being paid for by a 61-cent increase in federal taxes on tobacco products, a move Kuhl and many Republicans oppose as a "tax increase." Adding to Kuhl's woes, Massa accuses him of being in the pocket of big tobacco since he's received $10,000 from Altria and R. J. Reynolds, the two largest U.S. cigarette manufacturers, since 2006, according to Federal Election Commission Records. Kuhl dismissed such accusations with a laugh, saying he isn't even committed to running again yet so the term "opponent" hardly applies to Massa. "I would hope that the Democratic majority, who controls the agenda, would stop playing politics with a bill like this and would bring a bill back that would actually be acceptable to a veto-proof majority of the House," Kuhl said.

Massa, a 48-year old retired naval officer who ran against Kuhl in 2004 on a platform largely about Iraq, said he is now making SCHIP his No. 1 priority. "It is rapidly overcoming Iraq and here's why: people have a hard time finding a solution on Iraq, they just can't. This has a solution — this bill makes sense, it is clear and evident."