Framing the SCHIP debate

Fred Barnes:

President Bush and congressional Republicans shouldn't worry about political fallout from blocking the Democratic legislation to expand the children's health insurance program known as S-chip. They have a good argument against it that most Americans will buy and a credible alternative. So there's no reason to be anxious.

Supporters of S-chip expansion point to polls that show widespread public backing, including among Republicans. But once a single piece of information is added to a poll question on S-chip, the public's attitude changes. That information: the bill would allow kids in families making up to $61,800 a year to get free, taxpayer-paid health insurance.

Gallup asked this question of adults two weeks ago: "Based on what you have heard or read about this bill, who do you have more confidence in to handle this issue - George W. Bush or the Democrats in Congress?" Bush got 32 percent, Democrats 54 percent. Bush, of course, opposed and then vetoed the Democratic S-chip bill.

That question went to half the polling sample. The other half got this question: "As you may know, the Democrats want to allow a family of four earning about $62,000 to qualify for the program. President Bush wants most of the increases to go to families earning less than $41,000. Whose side do you favor?"

The response was almost the reverse. Bush got 52 percent, Democrats 40 percent. And the response likely would have been more pronounced in opposition to S-chip expansion if Bush, a relatively unpopular and highly polarizing figure, had been left out of the question.

For Republicans, this means they have a winning strategy. Limiting S-chip to its original purpose of providing health insurance to poor children (in families at less than $41,200 income) meets with the public's approval. Expanding S-chip into the middle class doesn't. The key is citing the $61,800 figure.

But that's not enough to win the political fight. Democrats can respond by saying, "There are millions of kids in that $41,200 to $61,800 income bracket without health insurance. What are you going to do about them? Where's the Republican alternative?"

In fact, Republicans have such an alternative. In the Senate, Mel Martinez of Florida and George Voinovich of Ohio have introduced a bill that would offer a $1,400 per child tax credit for health insurance to families in that bracket. The credit would be refundable. Tom Price of Georgia and dozens of other Republicans are sponsoring a House version of the bill.


Democrats and much of the media have been framing this as an issue of Republicans opposing health care for children rather than engaging in an honest debate on who should be eligible for the program. The ads featuring kids who are already eligible are especially dishonest as are the attacks on conservatives who challenge the ads. What Republicans need to do is run their own ads featuring the facts in the poll and put the Democrats on the defensive where they belong.


  1. State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP)

    4 million additional children
    $35 billion additional annual costs
    = $8,750 per child per year.

    I don’t spend that amount on my 4 kids per year.

    Who is getting all of this money???


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