Late last week the Senate voted on language that would greatly expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) by raising the federal tax on a pack cigarettes by 61 cents. The measure passed by a 59 to 40 margin, with 13 Republicans, including stalwart conservatives like Richard Lugar of Indiana, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Ted Stevens of Alaska, joining 46 Democrats in voting aye. Yet the Bush administration, kowtowing to its ideological supporters in the anti-tax movement and within the tobacco and private insurance lobbies, is strenuously resisting the attempt to expand SCHIP. Robert Pear has the story for The New York Times.
The Bush administration says it will strenuously resist Democratic plans for a threefold expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program, ensuring a clash with Congress over the most important health care legislation being considered this year.
Administration officials said that much of the new government coverage proposed by Democrats would simply replace private insurance, and they expressed concern about a sharp increase in the proportion of children covered by public programs in the last decade.
Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, said he was distressed to see Democrats pursuing what he called "a huge expansion of government-sponsored health care."
"The Children's Health Insurance Program has given Democrats a wide-open door for socialized medicine," Mr. Kingston said in an interview. But he added, "The door was left open by Republicans, who were in the majority when we passed the original legislation in 1997."
As is quite apparent from this story, Republican opposition to expanding this program, which has been remarkably effective in decreasing the number of children in this country without healthcare (a move that can in turn potentially decrease healthcare costs down the line because healthy children are more likely to make for healthy adults than unhealthy children), stems almost entirely from an ideological stance against the federal government working to achieve universal healthcare. Republicans fundamentally believe in allowing the current system, which ensures corporate profits but does not come close to covering all Americans, to endure indefinitely -- a position that puts them starkly on the wrong side of this issue.
Although Democrats have traditionally held an advantage on the issue of healthcare, there was a time in the late 1990s when Republicans had significantly cut the Democrats' lead. According to polling from The New York Times and CBS News (.pdf), the Democrats' 59 percent to 20 percent advantage on the issue of healthcare in 1994 had dwindled to a 51 percent to 28 percent margin by 2000 but has, in years since, grown to its widest margin since in decades as the public now trusts Democrats over Republicans on the issue by a 62 percent to 19 percent margin.
Given Republicans' opposition to the federal government taking active steps to insure all Americans, it's no wonder the public has recently soured on the GOP on this issue. The most recent CBS/Times polling indicates that the vast majority of Americans -- nine in ten -- believe that America's healthcare system either needs fundamental changes or to be rebuilt entirely. Close to two thirds of Americans (64 percent) believe "the federal government should guarantee health insurance for all Americans", with a plurality of 49 percent maintaining this belief even if it means that their own health insurance costs would increase. Three in five Americans (60 percent) would support the federal government guaranteeing coverage even if it meant that they would have to pay higher taxes as a result.
On the question of expanding SCHIP, the White House and congressional Republicans find themselves in an even smaller minority. Close to four in five Americans (78 percent) say that it is a very serious problem that many American children do not have healthcare, with another 16 percent saying that it is a somewhat serious problem. To combat this, 84 percent of Americans say that SCHIP should be expanded to cover all uninsured children, not just those from low and moderate income families. Two thirds of Americans (67 percent) support such a move even if it meant that they would have to pay higher taxes, and I would assume (though CBS and The Times did not poll the question) that an even higher number would register support for a plan that would just raise tobacco taxes, not impose an additional payroll tax or increase income taxes.
The Republicans' paltry record on healthcare stands in contrast with the Democrats' strong stance on the issue. As I noted in my coverage last week from the SEIU/CAP presidential healthcare forum in Las Vegas, every Democratic candidate in attendence (seven of the eight candidates in the race) spoke out in favor of universal coverage. While no two candidates approached the effort to cover all Americans the same way, the fact that the Democratic Party stands for universal healthcare while Republicans are seen arguing against covering even every American child is extremely telling.
Some might say that Democratic strength on healthcare has not always led to Democratic victories in federal elections, a point that is worth noting. That said, polling (.pdf) released by SEIU and CAP shows that healthcare is the most important domestic issue to voters, second overall only to the Iraq War -- a finding that has been replicated in almost every recent non-partisan poll. Accordingly, the fact that the Democrats are arguing on the correct side of the issue, both both on a policy and political level, almost undoubtedly augurs well for the party's chances heading into the 2008 elections.