WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry yesterday vowed to campaign against Republican lawmakers who oppose his effort to provide universal health care to children, as he seeks to build momentum in Congress for his biggest legislative priority -- and maintain his high profile -- after his failed presidential bid last year.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Kerry said 500,000 ''citizen cosponsors" have signed up at his website to support his ''KidsFirst Act" that would fund health care to all children by ending the recent tax cuts for people who earn more than $319,100 a year. The Massachusetts Democrat said if the bill stalls in the GOP-controlled Congress -- a strong possibility -- his network of grass-roots activists will team up with lobbying groups to recruit challengers and campaign against Republican incumbents.
''Those congressmen and senators who don't pay attention to it and don't become part of the solution are going to be part of the problem, and we're going to work towards their defeat in 2006," Kerry said. ''We're going to create accountability in the Congress and in the political process, and we're going to make a difference. We're going to organize, and we're going to support candidates who support health care for all children, and we're going to oppose candidates who stand in the way of providing that health care."
Kerry has made the bill his top priority, and he has promised to use his new influence as a former presidential candidate to ensure that Congress considers the bill. Campaigning on the issue across the country next year would also give Kerry a side benefit: increasing his national visibility should he decide to run for president again in 2008.
Republicans scoffed yesterday at Kerry's promise to target GOP incumbents who oppose his plan.
''If he wants to go into Republican districts, we'll buy the plane ticket, and we hope he brings [Democratic National Committee chairman] Howard Dean with him," said Carl Forti, director of communications for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, agreed that campaigning with Kerry could hurt a Democratic candidate's chances, particularly in states that President Bush carried in November.
''The American people spoke in the last election in reelecting the president by 3.5 million votes," Nick said. ''Having the president campaign for our candidates versus having John Kerry campaign for their candidates is something I'd be looking forward to."
With Republicans in firm control of both the House and the Senate, Kerry's bill faces long odds in the current session of Congress. Just yesterday, GOP budget-writers unveiled spending plans that include deep cuts in public health and social service programs, and the federal budget deficit stands at a record level this year.
So far, Kerry has signed up seven cosponsors, but none are Republicans, a necessity for the bill to have a realistic chance of passage. Yesterday, he sent letters to all his Senate colleagues asking for their support, and included quotes from residents of their states who have contacted Kerry's office in support of universal health coverage for children.
Kerry also sent a letter urging Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to commit to holding a hearing on the bill. Jill Gerber, a Grassley spokeswoman, said yesterday the senator ''will take a look at Senator Kerry's bill as he does with all bills assigned to the Finance Committee and then consider his options."
Kerry's proposal would revamp the Medicaid program to offer strong financial incentives for states to provide health coverage to all youths up to age 21. He said that if Congress voted against extending recent tax cuts for those who make more than $300,000 a year, it would generate the $22 billion that would be necessary to expand that health coverage.
''This is not complicated," Kerry said. ''You can have a tax cut that is not yet in place, not yet passed, for people earning more than [$300,000] a year -- which they haven't asked for and don't need -- or you can have health care for 11 million children in America. That's a values choice for Americans."
Several prominent labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, and Service Employees International Union, have endorsed Kerry's bill and are promising to lobby on its behalf in Congress.
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.