WASHINGTON -- President Bush again called Democrats "irresponsible" on Saturday for pushing an expansion he opposes to a children's health insurance program.
"Democrats in Congress have decided to pass a bill they know will be vetoed," Bush said of the measure that draws significant bipartisan support, repeating in his weekly radio address an accusation he made earlier in the week. "Members of Congress are risking health coverage for poor children purely to make a political point."
In the Democrat's response, also broadcast Saturday, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell turned the tables on the president, saying that if Bush doesn't sign the bill, 15 states will have no funding left for the program by the end of the month.
At issue is the Children's Health Insurance Program, a state-federal program that subsidizes health coverage for low-income people, mostly children, in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private coverage. It expires Sept. 30.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers announced a proposal Friday that would add $35 billion over five years to the program, adding 4 million people to the 6.6 million already participating. It would be financed by raising the federal cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 per pack.
The idea is overwhelmingly supported by Congress' majority Democrats, who scheduled it for a vote Tuesday in the House. It has substantial Republican support as well.
But Bush has promised a veto, saying the measure is too costly, unacceptably raises taxes, extends government-covered insurance to children in families who can afford private coverage, and smacks of a move toward completely federalized health care. He has asked Congress to pass a simple extension of the current program while debate continues, saying it's children who will suffer if they do not.
"Our goal should be to move children who have no health insurance to private coverage -- not to move children who already have private health insurance to government coverage," Bush said.
The bill's backers have vigorously rejected Bush's claim it would steer public money to families that can readily afford health insurance, saying their goal is to cover more of the millions of uninsured children. The bill would provide financial incentives for states to cover their lowest-income children first, they said.
Many governors want the flexibility to expand eligibility for the program. So the proposal would overturn recent guidelines from the administration making it difficult for states to steer CHIP funds to families with incomes exceeding 250 percent of the official poverty level.
Rendell said thousands of children will lose health care coverage if Bush doesn't sign the bill.
"The administration has tried to turn this into a partisan issue and has threatened to veto. The health of our children is far too important for partisan politics as usual," he said. "If the administration is serious about solving our health care crisis, it should be expanding, not cutting back, this program which has made private health insurance affordable for millions of children."
--The Associated Press