WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Backers of a bill expanding a popular children's health care program on Tuesday turned up the heat on House Republicans to break ranks with President George W. Bush and overturn his veto.
The Democratic-led Congress and Bush are headed for a showdown over the politically charged issue on Thursday when the U.S. House of Representatives will attempt to override the president's veto of the bill. It would add $35 million to the program, financed by raising taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Republican leaders say they have the votes to sustain Bush's veto and Democrats admit they are still working to win the two-thirds majority needed to overturn the president.
Part of that effort included a rally featuring singer Paul Simon, who is co-founder of The Children's Health Fund, a nonprofit group that helps medically underserved children.
"I'm hopeful and prayerful that we will change the minds of some of the members," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said at the event.
Simon called Bush's veto "heartless" and urge members who voted against the legislation to "find compassion" and change their votes. Democrats have to persuade around 12 Republicans who previously voted "no" to change their minds in order to override the veto.
The State Children's Health Insurance Program aims to help low-income families who cannot afford to buy private health insurance but who earn too much to qualify for the Medicaid health care program for the poor.
Union groups and MoveOn.org, the liberal online political advocacy group, planned vigils Tuesday evening in 275 cities in support of the legislation. They have run radio and television ads and organized grass root efforts in key Republican districts to pressure members to support the legislation.
But Rep. Ric Keller, a Florida Republican, said the ads running in his district have not changed his mind.
"I am going to be standing firm and supporting the president's veto," he said at a news conference.
Bush and his allies in Congress say they support renewing the popular program, but not expanding to the extent of the bill, which was negotiated by a group of Senate Republicans and House and Senate Democrats.
That bill would increase the current $25 billion five year funding for the bill to $60 billion and extend health care coverage to about 10 million children.
Bush in his budget proposal asked to increase the five year funding to $30 billion. But the bill's backers say that would not be enough to continue coverage for all children currently in the program who number over 6 million.
Republican opponents argue they want to be sure the program is focused on poor children and does not become a stepping stone for government-run health care.
They accuse Democrats of playing politics with the issue. But Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who helped negotiate the bill, said he disagreed.
"This is not a political thing," said Hatch, who joined Pelosi, Simon and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, at the rally in support of legislation. "This is helping children who need help."