WASHINGTON -- Sensing their best opportunity yet to overrule a White House that has stymied them on stem cell research and Iraq, congressional Democrats and their supporters have launched a campaign to override President Bush's veto of plans to expand the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program.
With polls showing broad support even among Republican voters to expand coverage to 4 million more children nationwide, congressional Democrats are rallying their allies publicly while speaking to their GOP colleagues privately. Supporters both on and off Capitol Hill are sinking millions of dollars into advertisements and automated "robo-calls" in the home districts of targeted Republicans, urging constituents to add to the pressure.
One target of their efforts is Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the only member of the Maryland delegation to vote against the expansion approved by Congress last month. The Western Maryland Republican has drawn an unusual amount of attention from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who singled him out publicly at least three times this week.
"In our caucus today there was a discussion about Maryland," Reid told reporters in one instance. "I think that representative from Maryland better check very closely how he votes on the veto override, because he's doing something that's going to affect the whole state."
Bartlett responded by thanking the majority leader "for recognizing that I cast the only correct vote about SCHIP in the state."
The veto override campaign pits a congressional majority - eager for victory on a program popular among both liberals and moderates - against conservative Republicans whose base sees the expansion as a step toward a national health plan. With the vote scheduled for Oct. 18, Democrats have given themselves two weeks to build support for a vote with reverberations likely to be felt next fall.
"We think it will be a defining issue in the next election because it says a lot about someone's priorities and values," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"The choices are very simple," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "Are you going to support children's health, or are you going to vote in lock step with the president out of blind, partisan loyalty?"
Bush has proposed adding $5 billion to the program over five years. Critics say that level of funding would result in 800,000 children losing coverage. The program is due to expire in November.
Republican leaders say they would support a compromise that funds children currently eligible for the program without extending coverage to families that could otherwise afford private insurance. They say Democrats are exploiting the issue for electoral advantage.
"Republicans are going to continue to stand on principle, to make sure that we provide health care for poor kids first," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said. "I think the Democrats' political games will become apparent to many people, that they're playing games, political games here in Washington, on the backs of poor kids who don't have health insurance."
At issue is the expansion of a program that covers 6.6 million children from moderate-income families not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Adding 4 million children would cost an additional $35 billion over five years.
A bipartisan majority in the Senate approved the expansion last month by a veto-proof margin, but the House vote fell short of the two-thirds needed to override. Now, with the support of the 45 House Republicans who voted for the expansion and the participation of a dozen Democrats who missed the initial vote, the bill's managers say they need 15 more Republicans to come over.
"We're identifying Republican members who did not vote for the bill, but that we believe might be convinced to vote for the override upon reflection because their districts will respond pretty heavily," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said.
The effort began before Bush's veto last week, when Reid asked 12-year-old Graeme Frost of Baltimore to deliver the Democrats' weekly radio address. The Park School seventh-grader described how the program benefited his family after he and his sister were injured in a 2004 car accident.
Hoyer will discuss the issue again in the Democrats' radio address today. Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, supporters of the expansion, also are among those working to build support.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises money for the House races, is targeting eight Republicans with radio and television ads. Democrats were joined yesterday by a coalition including MoveOn.org, Americans United for Change and several labor unions, which announced spots that officials said would have an impact on more than 30 Republicans.
"This is the biggest fight we have had on a domestic issue since the showdown over President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security," said Chuck Loveless, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
One Republican who missed the initial vote, Rep. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, has said he would vote for the override. White House press secretary Dana Perino predicted that advocates would sway few others.
"If Moveon.org and the unions ... want to get together and waste another two weeks and lots of money to try to pressure votes - any reasonable person can look at this and realize that, in the House, they are not going to get those votes."
Historically, overriding vetoes has proved a challenge.
"Often you not only have to have two-thirds, you have to have two-thirds and some spares, because the White House goes to work and flips a certain number of votes within their own party," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Still, Sabato said, "everyone is getting something out of this. Bush is restoring his reputation, if he ever had one, as a fiscal conservative. The congressional Democrats are getting a great issue for '08. And the Republican moderates are having the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and a very unpopular president."
Van Hollen said the effort to muster support is genuine.
One of his targets is Bartlett. But the fiscal conservative appears unlikely to be persuaded.
"The fact that the liberals are protesting my vote on the SCHIP just confirms to my constituents that I've made the right vote on that," he said. In a Democratic year, Maryland's 6th Congressional District re-elected Bartlett last fall to an eighth term in Congress with 59 percent of the vote.
Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.