Senator asks Bush to change opposition to tobacco tax

U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith urged President Bush on Thursday to allow Congress to raise the federal tobacco products tax to extend a health insurance program for children whose parents cannot afford to insure them.

Although proposals to increase funding for the 10-year-old State Children's Health Insurance Program have passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, the bills have failed to muster the two-thirds votes needed in the House to override the president's veto.

"Unfortunately, we continue to hit a logjam in the House and with the president," said Smith, R-Ore., while visiting a school-based health center in Portland. "I respect the President and know that he wants to help, but on this issue he has gotten it wrong, as have many of my colleagues in the House of Representatives."

Increasing funding for SCHIP by $35 billion over five years, as Congress voted to do, is "good policy" and "good health care common sense," Smith, who faces a serious re-election challenge in 2008, has said.

Bush, however, vetoed the bill that would have raised the federal excise tax on cigarettes by 61 cents, to $1 a pack, providing the revenue to enroll an additional 36,000 Oregon children in the program, and 4 million more children nationally.

"Oregon has 117,000 children who are uninsured and as leaders we need to ensure their families have the help they need to secure affordable and meaningful health care for their children," Smith said. "Oregon's children can't wait any longer for action."

In Jackson County, the program already covers nearly 2,500 children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid benefits but cannot afford to purchase them health insurance.

Rep. Greg Walden, the Republican who represents Ashland and Medford, is the only member of Oregon's congressional delegation to vote against the bill, citing concerns that it strayed from the program's original intent of helping the poor and was "financially unsustainable."

Under the compromise legislation Smith championed, SCHIP for the first time would provide dental coverage, allow states to cover pregnant women and offer mental health parity.

"Being optimistic by nature, I remain hopeful that when members return to DC from their November break they will find a renewed sense of action to reauthorize SCHIP," Smith said.

He added when Oregonians overwhelmingly rejected Measure 50 on the Nov. 6 ballot, voters were not signaling their disapproval with extending health care benefits to low- and moderate-income children with an increased state tobacco tax, but they were displeased that the law would have been woven into the state constitution.

"The failure of Ballot Measure 50 was not the result of Oregonians' lack of desire to help children get access to health insurance," Smith said. "Rather, it was the result of voters' frustration that their elected officials couldn't get the job done through the (state) Legislature by passing a bill."

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. You can reach him at

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