Here we go again: Health care for 9 million kids could disappear as soon as Friday because the majority-Republican Congress can’t get out of its own way.
Friday also is the day the entire federal government might shut down because infighting among congressional Republicans over immigration, military spending and other issues has left House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemingly without the votes they need to pass yet another short-term spending bill.
Coincidentally, Friday also happens to be the last day that federal authorities can guarantee they will be able to send money to the states, which jointly run the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) with the federal government, to keep it alive.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Knowing that enough members of the majority party didn’t want to play ball with leadership, and that President Donald Trump continues to send wildly mixed signals about crucial elements of the spending package, congressional GOP leaders decided to add CHIP, which covers low-income children, to the short-term funding bill as a way to pressure congressional Democrats to vote for it.
Here’s Republican Sen. Mike Rounds (S.D.) saying so to BuzzFeed News reporter Paul McLeod:
Eleven states are now poised to run out of CHIP money before the end of February, and that number will more than double by the end of March, according to federal data analyzed by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families.
The failure to deal with CHIP in a timely manner is made even more puzzling by the fact that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office now says extending the program’s funding for a decade would actually save the federal government $6 billion.
The budget office initially estimated that renewing CHIP for 10 years would cost the government $8.2 billion. The adjustment is largely due to changes Congress made to the Affordable Care Act that make private health insurance more expensive and increase federal spending on subsidies for that coverage, which makes CHIP a much better deal by comparison.
Before the Congressional Budget Office declared CHIP’s renewal a cost-saver, the House passed a bill to reauthorize the program over the objections of Democrats who didn’t approve of its corresponding cuts to Affordable Care Act coverage. And the Senate Finance Committee advanced a CHIP bill last fall without any means to pay for it. That obstacle is now gone.
And Trump made matters worse for everyone Thursday morning by posting on Twitter that he opposed including CHIP in the spending bill, a position that the White House later completely changed after members of Congress spent a few hours wondering what to do.
Seeing failure to keep the government open and CHIP running, Republican leaders are preemptively trying to blame a shutdown and a CHIP crisis on Democrats. This is a curious strategy considering that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House and yet can’t cobble together a majority of votes to pass their own bill.
At this point, Senate Democrats won’t even get a chance to obstruct the legislation with a filibuster because McConnell can’t find 50 votes from his own party members. And over in the House, the conservative Freedom Caucus is, as it often does, threatening to derail Ryan’s plans.
Democrats by and large don’t appear to want to go along with the GOP’s ploy, not least because they also want the legislation to include immigration provisions opposed by conservatives and, depending on what day it is, Trump himself.
Chief among the Democrats’ demands is help for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented young adults who were brought into the United States illegally by their parents as minors. Nearly 700,000 of them could lose relief from deportation because Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year, and the rate of people losing protections each day will skyrocket in March if Congress doesn’t act.
The Democrats’ insistence that a spending bill include immigration reforms intensified after Trump rejected a bipartisan deal that would’ve protected Dreamers while providing a bunch of money for border control and other things. Trump objected, The Washington Post reported, to people from “shithole countries” being welcomed into America.
Moreover, there is broad support in Congress for passing CHIP legislation and shielding Dreamers from deportation, leading Democrats to argue neither should be mired in the spending bill fight. CHIP, in particular, has enjoyed wide support among members of both parties since its inception in 1997.
Another problem with pinning CHIP’s problems on Democrats is that the program actually expired almost four months ago, on Sept. 30. The GOP spent most of last year’s legislative time trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and then passing a massive tax overhaul that mainly benefits rich people and corporations.
Republicans never made CHIP a priority and apparently preferred to keep a bill guaranteeing that millions of kids can keep their doctors’ appointments in their hip pocket as a way to force Democrats to support legislation they otherwise would oppose.
Congress twice has taken small steps to shore up CHIP, and the Trump administration has made efforts of its own to stretch the dollars it has for the states. But it was mere weeks after Congress authorized $2.85 billion for CHIP that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services disclosed that the money might last only until Jan. 19, not through the end of March, as Congress had intended.
So far, everything Congress has done about CHIP since the beginning of last year hasn’t been enough. Lawmakers now have just one more day to prevent the beginning of a catastrophe. They can’t say they didn’t see it coming.