WASHINGTON (AP) - House Democrats plan to give President-elect Barack Obama an early victory on health care, specifically children's health care, next week.
Leaders say they are scheduling a vote on renewing a politically popular health insurance program for children. Unless Congress acts, federal funding for the program expires March 31.
The legislation will look similar to bills the House and Senate twice approved in 2007. President Bush balked at the additional $35 billion in spending in the two bills as well as the method of payment - a tobacco tax. House Democrats could not muster enough support to overcome Bush's two vetoes.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said lawmakers discussed whether to include reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program as part of an economic stimulus package or as a stand-alone bill. The growth of the stimulus package in recent weeks led to the decision to move ahead with the latter option.
Pelosi said she did not know if the bill would be ready for Obama's signature on inauguration day, but she predicted "we'll be done soon."
"We don't know if the Senate will act immediately. We hope that they would," Pelosi said.
SCHIP provides health insurance for children in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance coverage. About 6 million children are now enrolled.
A vote on renewing federal fuding for the program is expected Tuesday or Wednesday, said Rep. Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman said several aspects of the bill have yet to be determined. For example, he did not know how long the program would be extended, but he said it would not be a full five years, as lawmakers sought in 2007. Nor did he know yet how much the tax on tobacco would be increased to help pay for SCHIP.
The bills in 2007 called for a 61-cent increase on a pack of cigarettes. At the time, lawmakers said they hoped the extra funding would help increase enrollment to about 10 million.
The children's health legislation in 2007 had widespread support. The Senate had enough votes to overcome a veto, but the House fell about a dozen votes shy of obtaining the two-thirds majority needed.
Waxman called passing a children's health bill next week a "down payment on national health insurance."
During a press conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not commit to a specific time when the Senate would take up a children's health bill, but he listed it as one of a handful of priorities that chamber would consider early in the session.
Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a children's advocacy group, said the bill will likely contain a provision that would remove a five-year waiting period for enrolling children of legal immigrants into SCHIP. He also said state officials want Congress to work quickly to renew the program, an argument against waiting for an economic stimulus package.
"They want to get this done and signed into law so states can have some certainty about what the SCHIP program will look like," Lesley said.
The federal government pays for 65 percent to 83 percent of each state's SCHIP initiatives. The amount varies depending on the state.