Senate Dems Drop Coverage of Legal Immigrants from SCHIP Plan, Will Try to Add Later

January 13, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

This is a little bit inside baseball, but it lends a glimpse at the relationship between politics and policy in Washington.

Democrats, as they push to renew and expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, hope to include coverage for legal immigrants, who currently must wait five years to receive health care under Medicaid and SCHIP. Indeed, House Democrats announced yesterday that the legal immigrant provision is included in the lower chamber’s SCHIP proposal.

But it’s not in the Senate version released today by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Instead, Senate Democrats will attempt to add the language as an amendment in the Finance Committee — an amendment that’s likely to pass.

Why go through the extra trouble?

It’s not because Senate Democrats oppose the policy. Indeed, Baucus has supported the concept of covering legal immigrants under SCHIP in the past. Rather, the issue here is political. As Robert Pear of The New York Times explains this morning:

This part of the bill deals only with legal immigrants. But it could revive the emotional debate over immigration, as many Republicans want to establish stricter verification procedures to prevent illegal immigrants from getting health benefits.

Most Finance Committee Republicans — including Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the panel’s ranking member — oppose the legal-immigrant provision. Grassley’s office sent out a statement this week explaining that opposition thusly:

In order to get legal immigrant status, a sponsor has to sign an agreement that the immigrant will be financially supported for five years so the taxpayers won’t have to bear the immigrant’s health care costs. Senator Grassley and many other Republicans support that policy and would be concerned about now allowing sponsors to go back on that commitment by asking the taxpayers to shoulder the health care costs for individuals who came to this country under those terms.

If the provision is in the final bill, the statement adds, “it’ll be difficult for many Republicans to support final passage.”

Republicans likely won’t have the votes to prevent the Democrats’ SCHIP bill from passing. Still, the current ruckus over the legal-immigrant provision is some indication of just how volatile an issue immigration remains.