Dems agree to discuss health bill with key opponents

WASHINGTON — Having failed to add a single Republican vote in their latest bid for a veto-proof children’s health bill, chastened House Democrats are trying a humbler tack: talking directly with the lawmakers whose support they need.

Democratic leaders are to meet Monday with a handful of Republicans seen as crucial to deciding whether more changes to the bill will give backers an all-important two-thirds majority.

Until now, House Democrats have largely avoided direct talks with these Republicans, who oppose the Democratic-drafted bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, but suggest they might be open to compromise. Instead, Democrats dealt this week with the few dozen Republicans who broke with President Bush from the start, counting on them to convert at least a dozen GOP colleagues.

The strategy dissolved into acrimony Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted on voting on the proposed expansion despite Republicans’ pleas for more time to build support.

The measure failed to attract new Republicans, dealing a blow to Democratic leaders and drawing recrimination from all sides.

Now, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel have agreed to meet Monday with several Republicans from a group of 38 considered central to the SCHIP outcome. Lawmakers said Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., would lead the GOP group. Her office did not respond to several requests for comment Friday.

The 38 Republicans wrote a letter Oct. 18 to Bush outlining their priorities for renewing the health program. House Democrats used the letter as a guideline for changing the first SCHIP bill, which Bush had vetoed.

While often citing the 38 Republicans’ concerns in revising the bill, top House Democrats did not meet with them until shortly before Thursday’s vote. By then, many of the Republicans accused Democrats of paying them only lip service and making cosmetic, politically motivated changes to the bill. Later that day, none of the 38 voted for the revised bill.

Hoyer and Emanuel hope for a more productive meeting Monday, lawmakers and aides said. If the group can agree to a list of changes that might attract at least a dozen more Republicans, they said, members will ask the Senate to incorporate them as amendments when it votes on the measure next week.

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