Pawlenty's SCHIP problem 

Mitt Romney no doubt has the most politically problematic record on health care of any of the Republican candidates, but as the campaign progresses, Tim Pawlenty will face questions from conservatives about his support for the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

Back in 2007, the newly-elected Democratic majority was in a pitched battle with the Bush White House over the renewal and expansion of SCHIP. Democrats saw it as a down payment on universal health care, but President Bush eventually vetoed the legislation, which raised tobacco taxes and expanded coverage to children from families with household incomes of up to $82,600.

As chairman of the National Governor's Association at the time, Pawlenty came out in favor of the renewal and expansion of the law. His public statements at the time show a politician who was trying to thread the needle as governor of a liberal state who had future ambitions within the GOP. Though he endorsed the renewal and expansion, he didn't say how big of an expansion he supported and didn't specify the funding mechanism. Nor did he explicitly come out against President Bush's veto.

“The nation's governors call on Congress and the Administration to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) prior to September 30, 2007,” read a July 22, 2007 NGA letter to Congressional leaders that was signed by Pawlenty. “The authorization for this critical safety net program will soon expire and urgent action is needed to ensure its continued success for the next five years.”

The letter went on to say that, “While we have not taken a position on the actual overall funding amount or the sources of revenue used as offsets, we are encouraged by the Senate Finance Committee's efforts to move a bipartisan reauthorization bill that provides increased funding and reflects the general philosophy that state flexibility and options and incentives for states are preferable to mandates. “

In an appearance on PBS's News Hour the following week, Pawlenty was asked to offer a “response” to the Bush administration's view, which was presented by then-Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt. Reading the transcript offers a glimpse of Pawlenty back when he had the reputation of being a moderate Republican governor, which stands in contrast to the often fiery partisan rhetoric that has categorized his efforts to woo conservatives as a presidential hopeful.

“Well, our hope is this is an opportunity for the Congress and the administration to come together on a need that is obvious and an opportunity that is actually positive,” Pawlenty said. “There's great support for this program.”

He went on, “I hope the two sides can come together and find a compromise without a showdown and nothing getting done; that would be unfortunate for the many, many disadvantaged children that this program serves across the country.”

He explained that, “SCHIP is an important part of our overall kind of quilt of programs here, and it needs to be reauthorized.”

While Pawlenty said he understood the Bush administration's concerns about the costs involved, he said, “the administration's position is something that we hope that they would loosen up on a little bit and have some room for expansion in it, as well.”

To put it mildly, President Bush wasn't exactly known for his fiscal restraint, yet here was Pawlenty imploring him to "loosen up" on spending for government health care.

When asked about the tobacco tax component of the bill, Pawlenty didn't embrace it, but he didn't come out against it, either. He spoke on behalf of the NGA, saying, “we have stayed out of the tobacco tax debate.” (Separately, Pawlenty did support a state cigarette tax hike in Minnesota.)

Asked about Bush's veto threat, he wouldn't explicitly come out against it, but he made clear he wasn't on the same page, either.

“Well, you know, having been somebody in an executive position, certainly not at the level of the president, but at a governor of a modest-sized state, I've had to veto a lot of things that were popular but just were not within our budget,” Pawlenty said. “And so that's never pleasant or easy, but sometimes you have to do it to send a message. I hope it doesn't reach that point with SCHIP.”

The following year, when Pawlenty was being touted as a possible vice-presidential pick, his position on SCHIP was seen as one of the drawbacks of his candidacy among conservatives. Human Events' John Gizzi asked him to explain his position in an April 2008 interview, and here's what he had to say:

“On behalf of the NGA [National Governors Association], I presented to the federal government, including the president, the NGA’s position on SCHIP,” he recalled, adding that the NGA stand was “there should be a renewal of the program, but we took no specific position on the funding mechanism -- in this case, the Democrats were proposing a cigarette tax increase, which was opposed by most Republican governors. And we also stayed out of the details of what it should look like, because we didn’t have consensus within the NGA, and we’re a consensus organization.”

The governor believes “that got translated by some columnists and others as ‘Pawlenty encouraged the president not to veto the bill,’ or ‘supported the Democrats’ version of the bill,’ and that is not accurate. And I’m glad I had the chance to explain that to you.”

 That's likely how he'll respond when asked about the issue during his presidential campaign. The fact that he was acting as head of the NGA and didn't explicitly endorse the Democratic version of the legislation, provides Pawlenty with some wiggle room. And certainly, the issue pales in comparison to the problems the Massachusetts health care law presents for Romney.

But at a time when he's trying to portray himself as a proponent of smaller government, his support for SCHIP expansion shows that he also has big government impulses.

And the subsequent history doesn't bode well for Pawlenty either. When Obama was elected, he signed the SCHIP bill Bush had vetoed, and then moved on to passing the national health care law. Meanwhile, the SCHIP expansion has proved to be a budget buster for states.

Expect to hear a lot more about Pawlenty and SCHIP as the campaign rolls on.


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