Congressional Democrats pushing to overhaul the nation's health care system - a major priority of President-elect Barack Obama - notched an early legislative victory yesterday as the House easily passed a bill to expand federally funded health coverage for children.
The measure, which would cover an additional 4 million children and nearly halve the number of uninsured youngsters in the country, came more than a year after President George W. Bush vetoed similar bills, effectively blocking any growth in the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
This year, with Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, there appear to be no real obstacles to the planned expansion, expected to cost nearly $33 billion over the next 4 1/2 years.
The bill sailed through the House, 289-139, and is expected to win swift passage in the Senate before Obama signs it into law soon after taking office next week.
"This is a new day in Washington," Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat and a leading champion of the bill, said yesterday on the House floor.
"Soon we will have a new president who has committed himself to reforming our nation's health care system so every American can access affordable and quality health care," he said. "The bill ... makes a down payment on that promise."
Shortly after the vote, Obama issued a statement praising passage of the measure.
"In this moment of crisis, ensuring that every child in America has access to affordable health care is not just good economic policy, but a moral obligation we hold as parents and citizens," he said. "I hope that the Senate acts with the same sense of urgency so that it can be one of the first measures I sign into law when I am president."
Democrats had hoped to expand the program after they took control of Congress in 2007. But they were rebuffed by Bush, who twice vetoed legislation citing concerns that it would expand government-run health care.
House Republicans renewed that critique yesterday and lambasted the legislation - which Democrats brought to the floor without regular committee hearings - for allowing states to provide health coverage to children in families whose incomes are significantly above the federal poverty line.
"We believe that the SCHIP bill should follow the original intent of the law, that is to cover children in low-income, working families," said Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber.
The federal poverty line for a family of four was $21,200 in 2008.
Family insurance premiums, meanwhile, averaged about $12,680 for a family of four, according to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured.
Most of the 7 million children now enrolled in SCHIP programs nationwide come from families that earn less than twice the poverty line, although several states have opened the program to families making more.