WASHINGTON, Sep 26 (Reuters) Defying a veto threat from President George W Bush, the US House of Representatives voted to expand a health care program for children in low-income families and raise tobacco taxes to pay for it.
The House voted 265-159 in favor of the bill yesterday, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. Forty-five Republicans broke ranks with Bush and voted with Democrats in support of the bill. The Senate is expected to take up the measure this week, possibly as early tomorrow.
The bill aims to insure more children in low-income families that cannot afford health insurance but earn too much to qualify for the Medicaid program for the poor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the measure enjoyed widespread support within the health industry and among voters and said Bush ''will find himself alone'' if he vetoes the bill.
She said Democratic leaders would keep trying and reach out to Republicans until they get a veto-proof two-thirds majority to override Bush's veto.
''This fight will not end this week or next,'' Pelosi said.
''This legislation will haunt him again and again and again.
It's not going away. The children are not going away.'' Bush's opposition has angered some fellow Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who helped broker bipartisan agreement on the bill, has said he was disappointed by Bush's veto threat and that extending the program at current funding levels would leave many children without health coverage.
The program currently costs 25 billion dollars and provides health care to more than 6 million children. Under the bill in Congress, spending would rise to 60 billion dollars over five years.
The additional 35 billion dollars in funding would enable states to provide health coverage to another 3.8 million children.
TOBACCO TAXES The cost would be paid for by higher taxes on tobacco products. The taxes on a pack of cigarettes would rise to $1, an increase of 61 cents.
Bush and his Republican allies said the bill goes too far and would be a major step toward government-run health care.
Bush has asked for a 5 billion dollars increase in funding over five years and favors using tax breaks to help people to buy health insurance.
''Republicans want to insure low-income children,'' said House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. ''What we don't want to do is expand government run health insurance to cover people making up to over over 80,000 dollars a year.'' Sponsors of the bill have said Bush's claim last week that families making as much as 83,000 dollars a year would qualify for the program are false and that the bill would discourage states from extending coverage to higher income families.
Republicans also argued that the bill would allow illegal immigrants to qualify for the program. Sponsors said that was not true and only US citizens and legal immigrants who lived in the United States for at least five years would be eligible.
Lawmakers are working against the clock. Current funding authorization for the program expires on Sunday. Congress has failed to enact any of the spending bills to keep the government running into the fiscal year that begins October 1.
Lawmakers are expected to take up a broad temporary funding bill to avert a government shutdown. That legislation includes money to keep the children's health program going until Congress and the White House work out their differences.
Reuters KK VP0645