Democrats now face a choice. Do they agree to health-care cuts elsewhere to ensure that CHIP continues, or do they hold firm and bet that Republicans will not be willing to suffer the inevitable political blowback that will come once states start cutting enrollment? “They’re going to lose this battle,” Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, predicted to me. “CHIP is going to be reauthorized.” Schakowsky added that the same political dynamic that stymied Republicans on Obamacare repeal would ultimately reemerge on CHIP. “People get health care,” she said. “They may not get Russia. They may not even get North Korea. But health care is personal.”
Yet having watched House Republicans pass Obamacare repeal despite plenty of evidence it was unpopular, Kennedy acknowledged that Democrats can’t just assume the GOP will come around. “Republicans are in control of the levers of power here for the most part, and with that comes the opportunity to frame that debate and frame that discussion,” he told me. “I’m disappointed and frustrated and saddened that this is the path that Republicans in Congress have taken. But I’m not surprised, at all.”
Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said this week the party had postponed a floor vote on the GOP’s CHIP bill to buy time for more negotiations with Democrats. He warned, however, that “if the minority wants to reach a bipartisan agreement, time is of the essence.” Lawmakers and aides predicted the dispute would ultimately get resolved, either with the passage of bipartisan legislation in the next few weeks or a reauthorization of CHIP as part of a year-end omnibus spending package. “They have to act before then,” Lesley warned. “If they wait until December, you’re going to have chaos in a lot of states.”
The missed deadline has already had consequences, he said. States like Minnesota have been forced to request emergency transfers of money from the federal government to keep their programs running, and Lesley said other states are already shelling out funds to prepare contingency plans in case Congress doesn’t act. “That’s money coming out of the allotments that should be going to children’s health coverage,” he said.
Advocates are also worried about what will happen once families start receiving dis-enrollment notices. “That’s a huge problem,” Lesley said. “If you’re a parent and you get a letter like that, that in 60 days your kid will be cut off of coverage, you don’t sleep at night.”
For Democrats, CHIP’s precarious position is an obvious consequence of their minority status. There’s little doubt that even with Republicans in control of Congress, a President Obama or Hillary Clinton would have made reauthorization of the program a priority. Trump, on the other hand, has never mentioned it in public, and while Republicans support its extension, CHIP has taken a back seat to a host of other issues. The GOP’s slim congressional majority gives Democrats the power to block most legislation, and they’ve taken full advantage of situations when Republicans need their help to enact must-pass funding bills. But on issues where inaction is an option, that leverage dwindles. When it comes to things like gun control, immigration, and even health insurance for children, Democrats have found they have barely any power at all.