WASHINGTON — House Democratic leaders, almost conceding defeat in their quest to override President Bush's veto of a popular children's health bill, promised on Sunday to pass another version of the bill after an anticipated showdown this week.
A bipartisan coalition seeks to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which was created for the poor. The coalition has been trying to pressure more House Republicans to vote Thursday to override Bush's veto; it needs a two-thirds majority.
But GOP leaders say they're confident the veto will be sustained, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) did not challenge their claim.
Asked on "Fox News Sunday" whether he was ready to say that the House was going to override Bush, Hoyer said: "No, I don't think I'm going to predict that now."
Similarly, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was asked on ABC's "This Week" about Republican predictions that the bill would die, she responded: "And isn't that sad for America's children?"
She said that Democrats would "try very hard to override" the veto but that the core dispute would not die if they failed.
"One thing's for sure: We won't rest until those 10 million children have healthcare," she said.
At issue is a bill that would expand SCHIP to cover more uninsured children -- mostly in low-income families, but also in some middle-class households.
Because the program has broad support, Democrats believe they have the political upper hand in the face-off with Bush. They portray Republican opponents of the expansion as standing in the way of providing health insurance to millions of needy children.
"It's difficult to predict victory [on the veto override], but it's a bad vote" for Republicans, said a senior Democratic leadership aide who requested anonymity when discussing the party's thinking. The aide added: "We'll just beat them up with it" in campaign ads.
Bush and his GOP allies cast the debate as one over the role of government in healthcare.
They say the bill goes too far because it would offer government assistance to families who could afford private coverage. And the bill's $60-billion price tag over five years is too high, says Bush, who has been trying to reestablish his party's reputation for fiscal prudence. He has proposed spending $30 billion over the same period.
The bill recently passed the House 265 to 159, with 45 Republicans joining the majority. Assuming everyone votes, 290 votes are needed to override. The Senate approved the measure by more than a two-thirds margin.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who also appeared on "Fox News Sunday," expressed confidence that the GOP would have the votes to sustain the veto.
But he acknowledged that the battle put Republicans in an awkward political position. "It probably isn't the fight we'd want to pick, but it's a fight [Democrats] decided to pick."
Pelosi did not offer any details on how Congress might eventually change the bill to make it acceptable to Bush. She also said she did not want to reduce the number of children who would be covered by the version sent to Bush.
"We have a plan," she said. "We'll take it one step at a time."
Pelosi complained that Bush was unwilling to negotiate a solution to the impasse. "Compromise to him means 'Do it my way,' " she said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto disputed that, quoting a recent comment by Bush: "If they need a little more money in the bill to help us meet the objective of getting help for poor children, I'm more than willing to sit down . . . and find a way to do so."