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Child health bill again clears Congress, despite veto threat

WASHINGTON - A defiant Democratic-controlled Congress voted yesterday to provide health insurance to an additional 4 million lower-income children, ignoring President Bush's threat of a second straight veto on the issue.

The legislation cleared the Senate on a vote of 64 to 30. It passed in the House last week, but supporters were shy of the two-thirds' majority needed to override Bush's threatened veto.

"We're convinced that the president has undermined an effort to protect children," said Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the Senate majority leader.

But Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said Reid had it wrong. "We must forge a bipartisan compromise to maintain current coverage and extend coverage to additional low-income children which the president can sign," he said.

In a situation of bewildering political complexity, Republicans dictated the decision to pass the legislation speedily. It appeared their goal was to short-circuit attempts by supporters of the bill to reach a compromise that could attract enough votes in the House to override Bush's veto. Attempts by Reid to delay final passage of the bill until next week or longer drew objections from the GOP.

"I believe a deal is within reach," said Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Finance Committee and a participant in meetings with two senior Senate Republicans, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, and several members of the House GOP. Baucus said the negotiations would resume next week.

The veto-threatened measure would add an estimated 4 million beneficiaries to an existing program that provides coverage for children from families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford private insurance. The program currently provides benefits to roughly 6 million children. At a cost of $35 billion, the bill would be paid for through an increase in tobacco taxes, including a 61-cent rise on a package of cigarettes.

Bush vetoed an earlier children's health bill this fall, and Republican critics said it failed to give a high enough priority to covering poor children, marked a Democratic attempt to expand government-run healthcare, and did not take sufficient steps to prevent the children of illegal immigrants from receiving benefits.

Democrats failed to override his veto. The vote was 13 short of the two-thirds' majority needed.

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