Thursday, October 18, 2007

13 Votes Short and the Road Ahead

Today, the House voted to override President Bush's veto on expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), but they came 13 votes short. Earlier this month, Democrats in the House waged an ad campaign against SCHIP expansion opponents, which may also signal the beginning of election battles going into '08.

On Tuesday, the Miami Herald's Lesley Clark reported that Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart began "a preemptive strike" on Radio Mambi to counter ads that criticized their opposition to expansion of SCHIP. The three voted against expansion of SCHIP when it passed the House last month with 265 versus 159 votes, and a prior passage in the Senate with 67 versus 29 votes supporting expansion. They voted the same today on reasons that many Republicans share: that the expansion of $35 billion for SCHIP went far beyond the intended $5 billion and would encourage more Americans to seek federal coverage instead of private insurance. Today's vote is the culmination of a media campaign that began on the 8th targeting Republicans who initially voted in opposition.

Early this week on Monday, Ileana, Mario and Lincoln heard about the proposed ads against them and immediately called in to Radio Mambi. Together they called in to Ninoska Perez-Castellon's afternoon show, and later to Armando Perez-Roura's show in the evening. The damage control continued on Tuesday and Wednesday with the three Republicans trying to get as much airtime as possible to defend their position on SCHIP. But, aside from the usual defense that the SCHIP program is too costly and would lead people away from private insurance, Ileana, Mario and Lincoln had a different argument for Radio Mambi listeners on Tuesday: SCHIP would destroy small Cuban-owned cigar-makers here in Florida.

It was Tuesday evening on Radio Mambi that Ileana, Mario and Lincoln called in to make their usual case, but they were supported by other guests that night to defend tobacco. Ana Navarro, Republican lobbyist, was on the show with two Cuban small-business owners who were arguing that the tax increase on tobacco, attached to the $35 billion expansion of SCHIP, would seriously damage the cigar business in South Florida. The show went on to speak of the rich Cuban history with cigar-makers, a mention of the decreased risk of cancer from cigars in comparison to cigarettes, and the possible negative impact on cigar employee wages if the tax increase on tobacco would pass. This is possibly the "small minority-owned businesses" that Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart had in mind in his letter to the Miami Herald from the 15th.

But, the show neglected several facts about cigars and the tax on tobacco. According to the American Cancer Society, "[i]f you smoke cigars, your risk of death from laryngeal, oral,or esophageal cancers is 4 to 10 times the risk compared to non-smokers... In a recent study, researchers found that the concentrations of carbon monoxide at two cigar social events in San Francisco were higher than the levels found on a busy California freeway." The guests on Radio Mambi made no mention of these negative health effects from cigars.

Also, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently issued a rebuttal to the White House's defense against the possible tax increase on tobacco. In essence, "[t]he SCHIP bill would advance efforts both to improve children’s health and to reduce the harm and costs of smoking, and the biggest gains in both areas would come among low-income families." The argument here goes that the tax increase (from 39 cents to $1) and high price of cigarettes would lead to fewer smokers within low-income families (who make up the minority of smokers anyway), increase family funds, and thus improve general health of low-income families. The majority of smokers (about 60%), who make at least twice as much as those living on the poverty line, will carry the costs of the tax increase. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 72% of Americans favored the tax on tobacco and $35 billion expansion of SCHIP.

Nancy Watzman from the the Huffington Post pointed to the influence of "tobacco money" on Capitol Hill. Since 2000, the tobacco industry spent nearly $25 million on federal campaign contributions, and "[n]early 80 percent of that cash went to Republicans."

Blogger Larry Thorson described a small demonstration that took place on Tuesday outside Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's office. He's keeping his eye on both Ileana and Lincoln Diaz-Balart with respective blogs.

So what are the ramifications of this defeat? Ron Pollack from Families USA believes that 718,603 uninsured children in Florida are at risk. And Floridians may have lost $2.45 billion in federal funding that, aside from providing healthcare for children, would have provided $1.08 billion in increased business activity, $417.1 million in increased wages and 12,953 additional jobs for state residents. A recent University of Florida study also noted that possible increases to premiums in Florida's SCHIP would have "a lasting effect on poorer families, who remained more likely to drop out of the program even after the premium was restored to its original level." E. Richard Brown, the director of the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research, says that "[i]f we increase the cost and kids are dropped, we’re really missing the important goal of why we developed SCHIP in the first place, which is to ensure children have health coverage and access to care."

Surely, this debate will carry into '08, and according to Ian Swanson from The Hill, Democrats in Miami may already be preparing for an election battle. The ads that began this week against Ileana, Mario and Lincoln were "the first time the national Democratic Party has targeted advertising toward those districts." In my opinion, the way that the three Republicans immediately scrambled towards their base, pandering to Cuban exiles, revealed a sign of concern.

[Photo above from SEIU petition march in Washington D.C. on Oct. 1]

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