The House of Representatives has approved by a vote of 289 to 139 legislation to expand a popular health insurance program for children from low and moderate income families. The measure which must still be considered by the Senate, was approved twice during the previous Congress but vetoed by President Bush.
Expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, has been a priority for Democrats and was one of the most fiercely debated issues of the last Congress.
Approved by lawmakers in 1997, the program allows U.S. states to pay for health insurance for low and moderate income families with children who lack access to the federal Medicaid program.
Democrats sought to strengthen the program, on which about seven million children currently rely, with $35 billion to U.S. states over five years to provide benefits to an additional four million children.
Republicans asserted that SCHIP had become unwieldy, helping families that are not truly in need of assistance, and said proposed new spending was excessive.
On Wednesday, Democrats renewed their arguments in favor of expanding SCHIP, citing, among other things, the U.S. economic recession that threatens to swell the ranks of the uninsured.
Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings referred to President Bush's earlier vetoes of the legislation.
"President Bush's action sent a devastating message," said Alcee Hastings. "The leader of the free world was willing to put the lives and welfare of millions of American children at risk."
Republican Pete Sessions argued that the program, which would expire on March 31, had grown beyond what it was intended to accomplish.
"Making sure that we just expand this program to meet every single need of every single child is not what this program was designed for," said Pete Sessions. "And a $35-billion expansion of the program will help bankrupt this country and the states that try and provide the services also."
After rejecting a Republican alternative measure, the 435-member Democratic-controlled House approved the legislation - with 137 Republicans and two Democrats opposing it, while 40 Republicans joined 249 Democrats voting for it.
The U.S. Senate will soon consider a similar, though less costly, version.
Eventual congressional approval, after House-Senate meetings to reconcile any differences, would clear the way for soon-to-be President Barack Obama to sign the legislation into law.
Mr. Obama could then claim a major early legislative victory and fulfill a key pledge he made during his campaign for the White House to expand health insurance for children in the United States.