Have the Republicans Picked Another Losing Fight on SCHIP?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 15, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

The Republicans’ circular firing squad is now assembled. All that’s left is for someone — President Bush, House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — to yell the appropriate command: “Fire!”

With their House and Senate caucuses deeply divided, Republicans have one week to figure out exactly how they are going to avoid a public relations — and a political — disaster. How can they minimize the damage from the president’s veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill?

There is no doubt that at some point Republicans are going to need to draw a line in the sand and fight Democrats, and GOP rhetoric about “bigger government” and “government spending” is the way to go. The question is whether SCHIP is the right issue, and this is the right time, to do so.

Many Republicans think it is not.

“It’s just stunning to me,” one veteran Republican strategist told me this week, “that after seven years of Republicans complaining that the president won’t use his veto, [the White House and Republican Congressional leaders] choose their big showdown to be over children’s health care. Good Lord, it probably polls at 80 percent!”

Added the GOP insider: “If we had been talking about cutting spending and waste in government for years, we could oppose SCHIP. But now we are finally going to get religion on spending?”

So what advice would this Republican give his party’s Members of Congress? “If I were in a swing district, I’d vote to override. There’s no way I’d take a bullet on this. But if I were in a good Republican district, I’d vote to sustain the veto.”

Those comments are not atypical of what many Republicans are saying.

One Republican Member of Congress I spoke with was just as explicit. “It’s stupid politics. The leadership is putting pressure on Members [to sustain the veto], promising to rebuild the brand. I don’t know why our guys are following [Bush] into the sea like lemmings.”

While some Republicans are hoping the White House and Congressional Democrats can fashion a face-saving compromise for the Republicans looking for a way out, that seems unlikely. Politically, Democrats have Republicans just where they want them, and the Democrats’ Congressional leaders and party strategists have no incentive — none — for letting the GOP off the hook easily.

“The Democrats have some Republicans bleeding like stuck pigs,” one House Republican remarked, noting that Democratic attacks certainly are taking their toll on Republican Congressmen who are likely to have tough re-election fights next year.

But isn’t McConnell correct when he asserts that Democrats are using the SCHIP vote to score political points? Of course he’s right. But so what? Each side uses votes for its political purposes.

Republicans ought not delude themselves that the SCHIP bill introduced by McConnell will inoculate them against future Democratic attacks. Since Democrats control the calendar in both chambers, they likely will be able to outmaneuver Republican legislators.

What happens, for example, if Democrats, unable to override a Bush veto, propose extending the current SCHIP until the middle of next year, when they could come back with the exact same bill that Republicans are blocking now? How would Republicans like having this same fight next year, only a few months before the 2008 elections?

If you are looking for evidence of the political potency of this issue, all you need to do is look at the one statewide race now in progress that involves a sitting Republican Member of Congress.

Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal is running for governor in Louisiana, and the vote on SCHIP could take place in the House of Representatives just a couple of days before voters in the Pelican State go to the polls.

The Congressman, who opposed the House SCHIP bill but supported the conference committee compromise, which was much closer to the Senate’s version, has indicated that he is planning to vote to override the president’s veto.

Some grass-roots conservatives are cheering on Republicans to “support the president,” as if SCHIP is somehow a test of GOP loyalty. Yet many of those same conservatives broke with the president on immigration, Medicare Part D and even No Child Left Behind, when they thought that Bush was wrong.

The apparent divisions within Republican ranks make it difficult for party leaders to argue, as they are doing, that they are standing on principle in opposing an expanded children’s health care program. As one Capitol Hill Democrat told me, “You make a principled stand when you are united — not when you are divided.”

Bang! Bang! It’s almost time to count the casualties.