September 3, 2007

September 3, 2007 | Commentary on Health Care

HillaryCare on the Horizon

Topping the Democrats' to-do list when they return to Washington this week is reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The House and Senate passed two different versions of the bill before August recess and now must reconcile the legislation before the program expires at month's end.

Although the Senate bill passed in August with a veto-proof majority on a 68-31 vote, Democrats won't be able to push their new bill through the House as easily. Just five House Republicans sided with liberals when the bill came to a vote last month, giving President Bush the backup he needs for a likely veto.

Why the veto threat? Congressional liberals have cleverly packaged a massive expansion of government-provided health care as a simple extension of a popular program for poor kids. In reality, the new SCHIP is no longer about helping only low-income children. It also wants to cover middle-class kids, even though most of them already have private insurance. In fact, the House-passed SCHIP bill incorporates some of the same language used by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton during her 1993 pursuit of socialized medicine..

The question is whether conservatives can do anything to stop SCHIP's expansion. With the program expiring on Sept. 30, Democrats are under the gun to get something done. That means they just might be in the mood to compromise to avoid a veto -- and the label of a do-nothing Congress.

Conservatives have spent the past month gearing up for the SCHIP fight, calling it a new-look HillaryCare. They have plenty of data to show the dangerous fiscal consequences of heading down this path, such as the reliance on tobacco taxes to pay for SCHIP's expansion. The House bill raises cigarette taxes by 45 cents, and the Senate bill increases them by 61 cents. Tax hikes of that magnitude would be disastrous for state finances. And in addition, millions of Americans would have to start smoking to pay for this new entitlement.

Just as troublesome is the move by liberals to strip out language in the bill to eliminate the so-called Medicare trigger. That language was part of the controversial Medicare prescription drug bill that narrowly passed in 2003. Fiscal conservatives insisted the language be included in that bill to force the president and Congress to address Medicare's unfunded obligation. However, in a move that would allow Congress to ignore the $32 trillion unfunded obligation of Medicare, liberals inserted a provision in the SCHIP bill to eliminate the trigger. The non-partisan Concord Coalition called the move a terrible mistake.

Given Medicare's growing burden on our economy, it's no coincidence that the trigger was "sprung" in April when the Medicare trustees issued their annual report. But will Congress do anything about it? Under the current law, they cannot simply turn a blind eye toward Medicare's rapidly increasing costs. But if liberals get their way with the SCHIP bill, it would allow them to do just that.

What's worse is that while Congress removes the trigger -- the only entitlement spending warning in law -- liberals are trying to create one more entitlement by modifying the original nature of SCHIP (particularly in the House version of the bill).

Conservatives can't let this happen. The SCHIP bill that will ultimately be sent to the president's desk must be fiscally responsible, focusing only on low-income children so it won't bust state budgets. Conservatives should also strike back at the left's attempt to steer America in the direction of socialized medicine. A rational alternative would be to explore ways to make private coverage more affordable.

This debate illustrates the left's mentality toward health care and federal spending -- reckless and short-sighted. It also pinpoints exactly where liberals are trying to take America. Heading down that road would be disastrous.

Robert B. Bluey is director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation and maintains a blog at RobertBluey.com

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First appeared in Townhall.com