Faith leaders called Thursday’s House of Representatives vote upholding President Bush’s veto of a children’s health insurance bill a defeat for America’s children and win for tobacco.

The House of Representatives voted 273-156 to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) over the president’s objection, 13 votes short of a two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

Forty-four Republicans voted with Democrats to override the veto, one less than the 45 Republicans who earlier voted with Democrats to send the bill to the president’s desk. Two Democrats voted to uphold the veto, indicating a change of heart for some of the eight Democrats who originally opposed the bill. Two Democrats and two Republicans did not vote in Thursday’s ballot.

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics called it “shameful” that 22 Republicans opposing SCHIP belong to Baptist churches, mostly in the South. Parham said those congressmen “neglected justice when they voted to sustain President Bush’s wrongful veto.”

“When they killed a bipartisan bill, they sided with big tobacco and against health care,” Parham said. “No amount of blame-game politics and ideological diversion should distract people of faith from the simple fact that these Baptist congressmen ignored the biblical imperative to do justice and care for children. I hope Baptist clergy in their districts will find their moral voice and express disappointment for their abandonment of child health care insurance.”

The sustained veto was good news for America’s tobacco industry. The measure passed by Congress would have offset costs by increasing excise taxes on tobacco $35 billion over five years, about 61 cents on a pack of cigarettes.

Cigar manufacturers said the bill would have raised federal taxes on large cigars to as much as $3. “Thank God it came out the right way,” Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana told Cigar Afficionado magazine.

“We have failed our children today,” said Brenda Girton-Mitchell, associate general secretary for justice and advocacy at the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. “We will continue to pray and work until our nation and its leaders are more responsible about taking care of God’s precious trust to us–our children.”

Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists spoke Wednesday at a rally at the state Capitol urging Congress to override Bush’s veto.

“Stop sacrificing the health of our children,” Prescott said in a message to lawmakers. “We can’t afford to be so short-sighted. Invest in their future. Their future is our future.”

On Monday Prescott joined other religious leaders in a letter urging their congressman to support the expanded SCHIP legislation. The letter, also signed by T. Thomas, coordinator of the Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma, Pastor Mitch Randall of NorthHaven Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., and Pastor Wade Smith of First Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., called passage of SCHIP a “moral discussion that addresses the very fiber of the American conscience.”

With the bill’s defeat, attention now turns to working out a compromise, but debate on the House floor revealed little common ground.

“This isn’t about an issue. This is about a value,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in closing comments of the debate.

“There is not an industrialized country in the world that anyone respects that does not provide health insurance for its children,” Pelosi said. “We are the exception–not a designation to be proud of.”

The compromise bill passed by both Houses of Congress but vetoed by President Bush called for expanding the 10-year old program that provides coverage for children in working-poor families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford to pay for health insurance on their own.

The $5 billion-a-year program currently covers about 6.6 million children. The bill Bush vetoed would have increased funding by $30 billion over the next five years, covering 10 million people.

Bush said he opposed raising eligibility levels–currently 200 percent of the poverty level in most states–to as much as three times the poverty level–$61,950 for a family of four–because it would encourage families to switch from private coverage to public assistance and move the nation toward socialized medicine.

Pelosi said Thursday that some of the reasons used by the president and other Republicans to oppose the measure–such as it would cover families with incomes up to $83,000 a year and would also include illegal aliens–are false.

“There are some myths about SCHIP–I don’t really think they’re myths–I think they’re excuses not to vote for the bill,” Pelosi said. “This has been a bipartisan effort, and some of what has been said about this is simply not true.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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