Michael  Franc

Amid all the chaos on Capitol Hill -- a possible vote to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney one day, shenanigans over the annual spending bills the next -- one constant has been the prolonged, backroom negotiation over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

Presiding over the negotiations are powerful House Democrats such as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and maverick Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (Utah). Across the table sit two dozen House Republicans who have indicated a willingness to “negotiate” over such issues as whether a program designed to deliver health coverage to children in families slightly above the poverty level should cover adults, children from middle-class families earning more than $62,000, and illegal immigrants.

Yes, illegal immigrants.

This last issue promises to be the most difficult one to resolve. And it points to the resiliency of immigration-related issues, especially those that involve spending taxpayer dollars.

Democratic pollsters James Carville and Stanley Greenberg believe voter concerns over illegal immigration explain much of the current voter discontent. These concerns have created what they call “a welfare moment.”

“Just as many workers with moderate incomes, uncertain employment and health insurance could not understand why they were being taxed to subsidize the long-term idleness of those on welfare,” Carville and Greenberg write, “many Americans are just as perplexed that this country has lost control of the borders and winks at illegal employment, taxing the resources of local schools and hospitals.” The frustration extends to health care. One voter lamented: “We can’t afford to do anything because we’re paying for health insurance,” yet illegal immigrants “just go in and get it free.”

The last thing lawmakers want to do in this heated environment is create a new health benefit for illegal immigrants even as millions of native-born American children remain uninsured. Because the issue is “binary” -- an illegal is either eligible for health services or is barred from receiving benefits; no middle ground exists -- it doesn’t lend itself to traditional legislative logrolling.

And that’s where the political hand-wringing begins.

Michael Franc

A long-time veteran of Washington policymaking, Mike Franc oversees Heritage's outreach to members of the U.S. House and Senate and their staffs.

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