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updated: 10/4/2017 2:21 PM

Parties fight over funding children's health insurance

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WASHINGTON -- A divided House committee battled Wednesday over how to pay for an extension of a popular health insurance program for millions of low-income children, suggesting that congressional approval will take time despite growing pressure on lawmakers to act.

The insurance program is backed by both parties, and approval of legislation financing it for the next five years remains virtually certain. It covers 8.9 million children.

But four days after the program's federal funding expired, the bill's progress was complicated as Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee opposed Republican plans for financing the extension and a related community health center bill.

The GOP cuts include trimming a public health fund established under President Barack Obama's health care law and making it harder for people buying individual health coverage to avoid paying premiums.

New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the committee's top Democrat, said the dispute could delay congressional action until the end of the year and accused the GOP of trying to "continue their ongoing sabotage of the Affordable Care Act," Obama's 2010 law.

"While some have called these offsets partisan, we would call them reasonable," said panel chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore.

No states are expected to immediately run out of funds to cover children because they can continue using unspent money.

But some are projected to deplete their money before year's end and are poised to take early steps like notifying beneficiaries that the program might be curtailed. Neither party wants to be seen as jeopardizing it.

A similar bill won easy approval earlier Wednesday from the Senate Finance Committee, but that measure had no provisions to pay for the extension after the panel's leaders failed to reach agreement. Without a deal, Democrats could force Republicans to get 60 votes to move the measure through the Senate, giving them leverage.

In a further complexity, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said he wants the measure to include federal subsidies to insurers for easing costs for low-earning customers. Some senators are seeking a bipartisan deal on that but many Republicans oppose that effort.

The bill would provide nearly $120 billion over the next five years. Less than half that amount is expected to actually be spent, and lawmakers will have to finance only around $8 billion because of Congress' budget rules.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not said when the full Senate would consider the measure. The chamber takes a recess next week and the House takes one the following week, and final congressional action seems unlikely until at least late October if not later.

The federal government bears most of the program's cost, with states paying the rest.

MACPAC, a nonpartisan agency that advises lawmakers on the program, has projected that Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina and the District of Columbia would run dry by December, the first states to do so.

By the end of March 2018, more than half the states would deplete their funds, the agency estimated.

Because passage is probably inevitable, lawmakers are lining up to attach pet provisions, such as increasing federal aid to hospitals or helping insurers curb growing premiums. Senators withheld amendments Wednesday to advance the process a step, but they could renew their efforts when the legislation reaches the Senate floor.

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