(CNSNews.com) - Republicans in the House of Representatives on Thursday accused Democrats of using the fires burning in Southern California as a distraction so they can reintroduce a contentious children's health care bill.
Democratic leaders in the House have scheduled a vote on the bill for Thursday afternoon. The bill had already passed, but supporters were unable to override President Bush's veto of the reauthorization and $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
Republicans, however, argued that some of their members have returned to their home districts in and near Southern California, where wildfires have been raging for more than a week. They accused Democrats of trying to sneak the vote in with many members absent.
"Speaker Pelosi and the Democrat Leadership have decided once again to play politics with the SCHIP bill," John Stipicevic, floor assistant for Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in an e-mail to Republican staffers. "This time, they are politicking while many of our Members aid constituents during this difficult time."
Stipicevic said Democrats "should be ashamed at the process of this bill and we need to make it clear to them that we will not stand for this abuse."
In a statement released Wednesday, Blunt criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for scheduling "an important, and contentious, vote on SCHIP while these members are confronting serious issues at home - disenfranchising, in effect, a large segment of the most populous state in the union, and throwing into doubt the integrity of the vote."
Of the 13 Republicans representing Southern California districts, only Mary Bono voted for the reauthorization and expansion of SCHIP in September. The 12 who voted against the bill also voted to uphold Bush's veto.
All of the 18 Democrats representing Southern California supported the SCHIP expansion bill in September and again in the October attempt to override the veto.
Republicans have further complained that Democrats didn't provide them with copies of the 293-page bill until 7:57 pm Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the scheduled vote.
Republicans will attempt a number of procedural motions throughout the day in an attempt to delay the vote, according to a Republican aide. However, it is unlikely they will be able to prevent the vote from occurring altogether.
In a statement on the House floor Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Democrats won't delay the vote, because "the time left to us is very short."
"[T]o push this off to next week then pushes this off to the week following when the Senate can consider this legislation, which then pushes off to the last week we'll be here for presidential action," Hoyer said.
He called the objectives of members who returned home "understandable and appropriate" but said that "what is not appropriate is for me to be put in the position or anybody, who schedules on either side of the aisle, to be put in the position to have our legislative process stopped when we essentially only have a few hours left."
Spokesmen for Pelosi did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. In a news conference Wednesday announcing the vote, Pelosi, who represents the Northern California city of San Francisco, did not mention the fires.
But she did call on Republicans to support the measure, which she argued is "supported by a bipartisan coalition, Democrats and Republicans across the country."
She said changes have been made to the bill which "clarifies the language on the claim that was made that people making $83,000 a year could receive SCHIP; that was patently not true, and it is clarified in the legislation that it is not so."
"It addresses who is eligible for the legislation and clearly defines eligibility and that does not include illegal aliens," Pelosi said. "They are not entitled to benefits. In fact, you cannot get benefits in our country unless you have been here for five years and legally so. The bill makes that very clear."
She said the new bill would "phase out" adults who are on the program, addressing a major concern for Republicans who pointed out that in some states, more adults were benefiting from the program than children.