Lobbyists leveraging SCHIP bill

Campaign contributions aren’t the only way to make nice with the people in charge. You can help to push bills that congressional leaders support even if the measures have little effect on your own business.

Virtually all year, in lobbying meetings, with ads on the airwaves and in Capitol Hill publications, through grassroots and Astroturf organizing, big healthcare groups have exerted themselves to help Democrats pass a $35 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

The lobbying groups have done so even though their financial interests in the program are negligible.

This week, the ersatz coalition gets another opportunity to engender good will as the House prepares for a momentous vote Thursday to try to override President Bush’s veto of the SCHIP bill.

The measure is one of the Democratic Congress’s top legislative priorities for the year and part of the party’s strategy to tee up healthcare as an issue in the 2008 presidential election.

If the veto is sustained as expected, the lobbying may have been for naught. But a show of strength by K Street could go a long way toward getting Democrats to smile on some industries that are frequent targets of the left.

Endorsements from these groups have already provided political cover to Democrats — and denied it to the president and the Republican Party. After all, if a bill is backed by America’s Health Insurance Plans, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and the American Medical Association (AMA), how could it be a Trojan horse for government-run healthcare, as Republicans contend?

Joining sides with the majority, especially at a time when K Street is game-planning for the possibility of a Democratic Congress and White House in 2009, should generate good will among Democrats. Lobbyists hope so, anyway.

“Each of these organizations function on the basis that they want to curry favor,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Families USA.

The Senate passed the bill with a veto-proof tally. But House Democrats are still about 15 or so votes shy of overturning the veto, even though the whipping operation has been bolstered by the efforts of centrist Republicans, such as Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.), and of Senate Republicans who helped write the bill, like Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThis week: House GOP regroups after farm bill failure Kennedy retirement rumors shift into overdrive How House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe MORE (Iowa).

Healthcare lobbyists have got plenty else on their plates, so what they’ll do after the vote is the subject of speculation among stalwart backers of the SCHIP bill.

 “What happens Friday is a whole other question,” said Bruce Lesley, the president of First Focus, a children’s advocacy group.

“There will be some set of them who will decide nothing’s going to happen on this and so that’s the end of this for them,” he said. Others will remain active but be more open to scaling back the size of the SCHIP expansion in order to get the issue off the table, he predicted.

The AMA, for one, says it’s not going to let up. Though the group also needs to get Congress to put together a bill to stop a 10 percent cut in its Medicare pay rates — which will probably cost around $20 billion — the doctors say they can walk and chew gum at the same time.

“We are committed to the SCHIP reauthorization,” said Edward Langston, chairman of the AMA’s board of trustees.
“That will not divert any of our attention from other issues, as well,” he said. “Our commitment to that bill continues.”

The American Hospital Association (AHA) has been corralling its influential members over the last few weeks to get lawmakers to vote for the veto override, said Rick Pollack, executive vice president of the association. “It’s a pretty targeted effort,” he said.

Like the AMA, the AHA is confident it can juggle SCHIP with the rest of its agenda.

“We’re a big enough organization to be able to do more than one thing at a time,” the AHA’s Pollack said. What’s more, SCHIP could find itself attached to Medicare legislation important to hospitals, as it originally was in the House.

But PhRMA says it isn’t whipping votes. “We don’t view that as our job,” said Ken Johnson, PhRMA senior vice president.

Although PhRMA has dedicated significant financial resources to TV and print advertisements and other activities, it has steered clear of lobbying on SCHIP.

“We have painstakingly avoided the political debate on SCHIP,” Johnson said. “We’ve tried to walk a very fine line.”
The Democratic leadership will look for these groups to stay in line, Families USA’s Pollack said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is “going to expect, and has good reason to expect, that groups that have supported this legislation will redouble their efforts” if the veto override fails, he said, adding that he believes they will.

Democrats also can count on plenty of unrelenting assistance from outside groups as the SCHIP fight drags on.

Smelling a political winner, liberal organizations like MoveOn.org, Americans United and USAction are challenging lawmakers and Republican presidential candidates on SCHIP.

President Bush insists he’s not willing to see SCHIP go down in flames, while Pelosi and other congressional leaders have vowed to revisit SCHIP at every possible opportunity. But the Democrats haven’t been specific about just how they plan to shoehorn re-runs into a very crowded legislative schedule.

They’ll have to do something, though; the continuing resolution, which has kept SCHIP running since its authorization expired on Sept. 30, only goes until Nov. 16.

Plus, extending the old authorization for very long would put the squeeze on the growing number of states that are running low on federal SCHIP dollars.