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SCHIP Passes Senate; Grassley Wants More Input

Much is being said — some praise and some criticism — of the bipartisan outreach that’s marked the first weeks of the Obama administration. But you won’t convince Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) that’s it’s happening everywhere.

Grassley, the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said this week that his counterpart, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), was “pushed” by Democratic leaders to accept both the stimulus proposal and the enormous expansion of the State Children’s Health Care Program that passed the upper chamber last night. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Grassley said Baucus was not allowed the time to negotiate those bills in a more bipartisan way.

From the call:

In the case of SCHIP, I don’t blame Baucus. In the case of stimulus, I don’t blame Baucus. But it’s still not a very good environment compared to the good environment we had before where almost every mark that was laid on the table was a bipartisan mark.

So let me make it very clear that — that it was pushed — a partisan approach was pushed on Baucus by — I don’t know whether by the president-elect at that time or whether it was by the leadership of the Democratic Party in the Senate.

But we were going to sit down and negotiate until they were kind — the other side was kind of dictated to. In the case of the stimulus, even though I don’t like how it was handled, I don’t blame Baucus because he was under fire to get something done very quickly because the president wants something on his desk by February the 15th.

The debate over the renewal of SCHIP — the popular state/federal program that covers kids from families too wealthy to qualify for Medicaid, but too poor to afford their own health insurance — goes back more than a year, when congressional Democrats passed legislation expanding the program by $35 billion over five years, only to see that bill vetoed twice by former President George W. Bush. Many Republicans at the time argued that the expansion went too far to cover families that could afford their own coverage, thereby “crowding out” the private insurance market.

The bill that passed the Senate yesterday goes even further than the 2007 proposal, including dental coverage and allowing legal immigrants to get SCHIP benefits immediately, rather than suffering the five-year waiting period that’s currently in place. (Grassley had been particularly critical of the latter provision.)

The cost — projected to be $32.3 billion over four-and-a-half years — will be offset by raising the federal cigarette tax by 3 cents per stick.

For children’s healthcare advocates, the Senate vote marks the end of a long push to expand the SCHIP program. Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, issued a statement last night calling the bill a “critical” step toward getting all of America’s 11 million uninsured kids covered — of particular importance in the middle of a recession.

No government program has been more successful in expanding children’s healthcare coverage than SCHIP. In these dire economic times, this program serves as a critical lifeline for millions of American families. While it is clear that there is more work to do to ensure coverage for all children, indeed all Americans, we are grateful for this important step in that direction.

Such statements are also indication that the SCHIP debate is just the start of much larger health care reform proposals likely to emerge in the coming months. And if you thought SCHIP was partisan, just you wait. (Yesterday’s SCHIP vote attracted nine Republicans.) As Robert Pear points out in The New York Times today:

The Senate debate showed the outlines of what promises to be a much larger political fight over universal coverage. While Democrats championed expansion of the child health program, many Republicans, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, said they worried that it was part of a long-term effort to replace private health insurance with government programs.

As an indication that Democrats plan a much larger role for the federal government in the healthcare arena, consider this: As part of the SCHIP expansion, the program has been officially renamed to CHIP. That is, the “state” has been dropped.

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