The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation Thursday to provide health insurance to 11million low-income children and for the first time open the program to legal immigrant children and pregnant women.
The state Children's Health Insurance Program, which is aimed at families earning too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance, currently covers close to 7 million youngsters at a cost of $25 billion.
Lawmakers voted 66-32, largely along party lines, to renew the joint state-federal program and spend an additional $32 billion to expand coverage to 4 million more children. The expansion would be paid for by raising the cigarette tax by 61 cents a pack, to $1.
The House approved similar legislation on Jan. 14, and President Obama is expected to sign a final version as early as next week.
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Democratic lawmakers, noting that President George W. Bush twice vetoed similar legislation, praised the vote as evidence of the changing Washington landscape.
“Low-income, uninsured kids all across America have been waiting for Congress to fulfill the promise of the Children's Health Insurance Program for them,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. The program “works to get low-income, uninsured kids the doctor's visits and medicines they need to stay healthy, and approval of this bill opens the door of the doctor's office to millions of children who live without proper health care today.”
But the political victory may come at a price. The rancorous debate – on a program that once basked in bipartisan popularity – raised doubts about whether the two parties can unite to pass broader health reform this year, said several moderate Republicans.
“This is a very unfortunate beginning,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and a stalwart supporter of the program, Grassley said he was “disgusted” by the way Democratic leaders handled the debate. “It does not bode well for cooperative work in the coming months.”
As the vote came just one day after the House passed a $819 billion economic stimulus package without a single Republican vote, some longtime lawmakers questioned the president's ability to forge a new era of cooperation in the capital.
“If they wanted a nice signing ceremony that showed bipartisanship and carried through on the president's language, this would have been a good vehicle to do it on,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
Since its creation in 1997 under a Republican-led Senate, the children's health program has enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
“Few government programs in our time have enjoyed such great success, as acknowledged by members of both parties,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Governors, business executives and consumer advocates lobbied for the expansion, arguing that more and more families have sought the assistance in this weakened economy.
GOP lawmakers objected to the new provision allowing states to enroll legal immigrants. Until now, immigrant families had to wait five years for coverage.