How to Help the Kids

Posted: Oct 07, 2007 12:00 AM
How to Help the Kids

Nobody in Washington likes to compromise, but when it comes to helping poor kids, you’d think politicians would choose solutions instead of spin. Think again.

Congressional Democrats and President Bush are on a collision course over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Neither side wants to budge. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to negotiate, and House Republicans are adamant about sustaining Bush’s veto of a $35-billion expansion of the program.

“We’re not going to compromise,” Reid said last week. “That is an insult -- an insult.”

The Democratic leader noted that liberals in the House already agreed to trim their legislation from $50 billion -- as if a compromise between far-left liberals and mainstream liberals should satisfy the full spectrum of policy views.

Some Republicans are being equally stubborn. Senate GOP leaders, unable to reach consensus among their caucus, decided to reintroduce legislation that stagnated this summer rather than embrace a new alternative. Two key holdouts, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), are giving Democrats the leverage they need.

So where do lawmakers go from here?

At a time when politics routinely trumps policy on nearly every issue, some members of Congress still are serious about getting something done. One of them is Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). Although conservatives disapproved of Martinez’s approach on comprehensive immigration reform, they should like what he’s proposing for SCHIP.

“We’re at an impasse,” Martinez told Congressional Quarterly in reference to Bush’s veto. “We, as Republicans, can’t just be against something. We’ve got to be for something.”

Most Republicans won’t support efforts that cost people their private health coverage and move them into government-run health plans. And most Democrats won’t give up their goals of making sure all kids have government-run health coverage. Enter, Sen. Martinez.

He has put together a compromise that should appeal to lawmakers in both camps. His plan would still cover children at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, as SCHIP does now, but it would also offer families earning up to three times the level of poverty ($61,950 for a family of four) a tax credit that allows them to get -- and keep -- the health coverage they want.

Martinez’s plan would reauthorize the SCHIP program as it currently exists for uninsured children in lower-income, working families. Then, in an attempt to address the question of higher-income populations who would benefit from the Democrats’ $35-billion bill, Martinez relies on tax credits. Those tax credits would allow about 1.3 million uninsured children to gain private insurance. They would be getting government support in the form of a tax credit, but they wouldn’t be part of the massive expansion that liberals have proposed.

Could this proposal bring both parties together to talk? Although the approach using tax credits has won bipartisan support in the past -- including from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- it might take a miracle for Martinez to bridge the gap in his own party before even exploring the option with Democrats. That would be unfortunate.

Republicans must make a good-faith effort to offer a viable alternative to the Democrats’ SCHIP bill if there’s any hope of getting both sides to sit down at a table. Although Reid has slammed the door on a compromise, he knows Republicans will ultimately decide the fate of SCHIP because of the razor-thin margins in Congress.

Bush’s veto gave lawmakers a fresh slate to begin anew. They should use the opportunity to get something done.