WASHINGTON (CNN) - Congressional Democrats flexed their new political muscle Wednesday as the House of Representatives passed legislation expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) by more than $32 billion over five years.
The bill, which will be taken up by the Senate next week, passed by a margin of 289-139. A majority of Democrats supported the expansion; a majority of Republicans were opposed.
President-elect Barack Obama, who emphasized his support for an expansion of the SCHIP program during the 2008 campaign, is expected to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
SCHIP currently covers over six million children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid - the federal health insurance program for the poor - but who can't afford private insurance. The bill's supporters say the legislation would extend the program to an estimated four million additional children, paying for it with a 61-cent-per-pack increase in the federal tax on cigarettes.
Passing an expansion of SCHIP early in Obama's presidency, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, would be "a very dramatic and important statement that change has come to America."
"Children are our treasure," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan. "The (SCHIP) bill is only the beginning... We must not stop until all Americans qualify for quality, affordable health care."
Opponents of the bill argued that, among other things, it discriminates against physician-owned specialty hospitals, will allow undocumented immigrants to illegally access taxpayer-financed healthcare, and is insufficiently funded.
"Increasing the cigarette tax... does not, will not, and cannot cover the costs of this program," Rep. Dave Camp, R-Michigan, said. "The impending tax increases... will have us all in a severe coughing fit."
Funding the bill through cigarette taxes is "irrational," added Rep. Wally Herger, R-California, because it "finances a growing program through a declining revenue source."
President Bush vetoed two similar bills in 2007, arguing at the time that the legislation would have encouraged families to leave the private insurance market for the federally-funded, state-run program.