Health Care to Top Govs' Meeting in D.C.

With proposals to provide health care to the uninsured sprouting in statehouses and President Bush trying to drum up support for his own plan to make insurance more affordable, health care is certain to dominate discussions at a meeting of the nation's governors that opens in Washington, D.C., this weekend.

The governors are expected to press Bush for more help in their quest to expand health insurance coverage when they meet with him at the White House Feb. 26 as part of the National Governors Association's winter meeting . Also high on governors' agendas: use of the National Guard in Iraq, the federal No Child Left Behind education law and a sweeping new mandate to revamp drivers' licenses.

A large portion of the meeting will focus on how states can create jobs, spur innovation and be more competitive, the pet project of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), the NGA chair. The aim is to create new businesses through better science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Intel Corp. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are expected to provide some $3 million for the effort. The NGA also is expected to announce closer ties with the Council on Competitiveness.

In its first gathering since Democrats took control of Congress last November, NGA is hoping its record of bipartisanship and consensus-building will mean a bigger role for governors at a time of divided government in Washington.

Health care is one area in which the president and Congress are clearly divided. Bush's health care proposal, particularly his proposal for the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), is getting a tepid, if not hostile, reaction on Capitol Hill and among some governors.

S-CHIP, which provides subsidized health insurance to families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, technically expires this fall but could run out of money as early as this spring for some dozen states if Congress doesn't step in.

While the president has proposed adding $5 billion to the program, various analysts say states need up to $16 billion more just to keep covering the same number of families. The president also wants to freeze enrollment of adults in S-CHIP, another concern for some governors who want to expand health insurance coverage in their states.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R-Ga.), chair of the Republican Governors Association , is expected to clamor for S-CHIP action at a news conference this weekend. Perdue has threatened to shut down the state's Peach Care program and leave 260,000 children without coverage if more federal funds aren't found soon.

Some 20 states are considering proposals to make health insurance available to all of their residents or to all children in their states. Some plans require an influx of federal dollars, including proposals from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D).

S-CHIP also will be the focus of a Feb. 26 session involving U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, a former governor of Utah. Leavitt also is expected to be on hand earlier in the day when the governors go to the White House to meet with Bush.

Also tentatively slated to meet with the governors are U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff. Governors are likely to air ongoing concerns about No Child Left Behind with Spellings. With General Pace, it's a good bet they'll raise questions about the reliance on part-time soldiers of the National Guard for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, leaving some states stretched in terms of both manpower and equipment.

Also during the NGA meeting, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau , the federal agency that oversees Guard activities, is expected to meet privately with some of the 11 new governors. Blum has participated in previous NGA meetings, but is not part of the formal program this year.

Look for the governors to press Congress to roll back a change in federal law that gives the White House the power to go over a governor's head and call up National Guard troops to aid a state in time of natural disasters or other public emergencies. The changes "undermine governors' authority over the Guard, place the safety and welfare of citizens in jeopardy and should be repealed," the NGA said in a recent letter to Capitol Hill.

The governors will discuss ways to promote clean energy with U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman.

Apart from NGA functions, governors also will use their time in the nation's capital to schmooze with their colleagues, lobby Congress for their own state projects and do some fundraising:

  • New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) will meet with Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D) to discuss Culver's concerns about his state's leadoff presidential caucus, The Union Leader reported.
  • California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) plans to press members of Congress to enact national standards to cut carbon levels, modeled after his own global warming initiatives in California. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) plans to visit Alaska's congressional delegation and others to discuss her plan for a gas pipeline in her state, The New York Times reported.
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) will chair the annual Republican Governors Association dinner that features President Bush. Tickets start at $1,000, though a $250,000 package includes 10 tickets and a private breakfast with GOP governors, The Dallas Morning News reported.