BARGAINING CHIP

Republicans Weaponize Children’s Health Care Against Dems

GOP leaders have signed off on a six-year extension of CHIP, and they’re openly daring Democrats to vote against it.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

There’s a potentially major breakthrough on the docket for Congress to resolve a months-long standoff over children’s health insurance.

But a proposal to extend the bipartisan Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for six years could end up failing because Democrats are convinced that Republicans are using the health care of 9 million children as a cudgel to cajole them into keeping the government open without a separate immigration deal. The government runs out of money on Friday night.

“We voted for a [short-term government funding extension] in September. So we’re now four months later and we are no closer to a resolution of any of those issues than we were when we voted for [it],” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), told The Daily Beast in an interview on Wednesday. “That’s because all they cared about was passing the tax cuts. Why should we give them any help at this point? They’ve proven they can’t govern.”

House Republicans on Tuesday night announced that a six-year CHIP extension would be attached to a four-week spending bill. Their bill didn’t include protections for so-called DREAMers—the undocumented minors brought to the country illegally—making it difficult for Democrats to support it. But by adding CHIP, Republican lawmakers were essentially daring those on the other side of the aisle to vote against the measure and, in turn, be blamed for not wanting to save a bipartisan health care program for poor children.

Even some Republican aides conceded that this was their goal.

“After Democrats slammed Republicans for not caring about sick children for months, the GOP is turning the tables on Democrats with the government funding package with CHIP provisions,” a Republican congressional aide, granted anonymity to candidly assess the matter, told The Daily Beast. “Democrats are faced with a choice to eat their words or support a Republican vote.”

It has been more than 100 days since Congress failed to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program, leaving almost 9 million children in limbo with piecemeal funding keeping the program on a knife’s edge in various states.

Though Democrats have long been pushing a five-year CHIP authorization, some lawmakers expressed frustration on Wednesday at the prospect of children’s health insurance being used as a bargaining chip in the more complicated politics of averting a government shutdown—and adding yet another contentious fight into the mix at a time when Democrats were already threatening to oppose any stopgap bill that did not address the DREAMers.  

The Congressional Budget Office estimated just a week ago that an extension of the CHIP program for 10 years would actually lead to net savings as evidence that Republicans weren’t interested in children’s health care beyond the political benefits the issue provided. That CBO estimate was based on the calculation that coverage through CHIP would actually be comparatively cheaper after Republicans repealed the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate last year.

A House Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations on Tuesday told The Daily Beast that Democrats were still pushing for a 10-year or permanent extension and suggested that they may be able to persuade some Republicans lawmakers to agree with their approach or even pass a CHIP bill outside of a government funding mechanism.

“An extension of CHIP and other health care programs could be passed today with strong bipartisan support if it was not attached to the continuing resolution,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told The Daily Beast. “We have a chance to permanently extend CHIP and we should take it, without attaching it to controversial matters.”

Time is of the essence. Though CHIP funds lapsed at the end of September, state governments have been able to continue supporting the program through a mix of reserved funds and help from the federal government. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said on Jan. 5 that it could not guarantee that states’ funding would last beyond this Friday.

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Republican leaders on Wednesday were openly trying to use the issue against Democrats, who had been seeking a longer term reauthorization of the program during previous government-funding battles. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) office blasted out a long list of Democratic senators discussing the importance of reauthorizing the program. And Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), referenced late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s crusade to pass a CHIP extension as a means of framing both him and Democrats as duplicitous on the matter.

Others, however, said that the issue should be devoid of political trickery.

“I don’t consider it a bargaining chip. I consider it something we should’ve done long ago,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told The Daily Beast. “I think it’s long overdue.”

With congressional Democrats being urged to oppose the short-term extension with CHIP included, Republicans—and the president—were already attempting to blame Democrats in the event of a shutdown.

But Democrats were quick to call attention to President Donald Trump’s equivocations on the issue of immigration—in which he went from encouraging a bipartisan solution for DREAMers to using racially charged rhetoric about “shithole countries” within a span of two days last week—as the reason why a government shutdown would fall on Republicans’ shoulders.

“Leader McConnell, on this instance as on many, many others, says ‘our way or no way.’ That is wrong. We will do everything we can to avoid a shutdown,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Wednesday. “If, God forbid, there is a shutdown, it will fall on the Majority Leader’s shoulders and the president’s shoulders.”

Even before CHIP was brought into the mix late Tuesday night, Democrats had their own tough decisions to make this week. A large contingent of liberal Democrats was already threatening to vote against any short-term funding measure without guaranteeing legal protections for DREAMers under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Even lawmakers from states where CHIP funding has reached a critical reserve hinted that they’d be comfortable voting against the Republicans’ short-term stopgap measure.

“The idea of again kicking the can down the road with a temporary short-term fix—the fourth in as many months—is a sign of a failure to govern,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), whose state faces one of the worst impending crises with CHIP, told The Daily Beast.

Asked if he was concerned that Republicans would use potential votes against the bill with CHIP in it against Democrats, Blumenthal said it was too transparent a ploy.

“They can attempt to use this kind of cynical ploy, but the American people are going to see through it,” he added.