Republicans leaped onto ill-timed remarks by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Wednesday for an exchange in which, after a reporter asked if the Nevada Senator would support a bill funding the National Institutes of Health so children with cancer would have access to experimental treatments, Reid appeared to reply, “Why would we do that?” The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that about 30 children had been turned away from NIH because of the shutdown. As part of a strategy for exerting political pressure on the White House to concede to Republicans over funding the government, the House has been passing bills funding popular programs–including one that would fund the NIH.
Reid was actually responding to his colleague, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who had asked, “Why pit one against the other?”
No matter. For Republicans the message was out: the Democratic leader had callously brushed off the suffering of sick children. At a press conference Thursday afternoon promoting legislation that would continue the shutdown but fund the NIH, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said, “While we work out our differences here in Washington, children should not be denied their treatment.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out an email asking, “How out-of-touch and heartless can Senate Democrats be?”
It’s strange question, and not just because Republicans forced a government shutdown by demanding Obama delay or repeal the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have opposed the expansion of health insurance coverage, including for children, since before Obama even took office. In 2007, President George W. Bush vetoed efforts by Democrats in Congress to expand the S-CHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, to cover millions more uninsured children. After Obama took office, one of the first laws he signed was an expansion of S-CHIP, which Republicans voted almost unanimously against (that includes Cantor, both times). Conservative activists have been urging Republican governors to reject the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, and the result is that Republican-controlled states are leaving eight million low-income Americans out in the cold. And there’s more: the Republican proposal for funding the government continues the cuts to NIH imposed by sequestration.
That legislative history is consistent with the conservative position that government-provided health care is an evil that should be resisted at all costs–even if that means shutting down the government. But it’s not consistent to call Reid heartless for denying access to government health care for a single cancer-stricken child, when the Republican policy position is that millions of American children should go without health insurance coverage. The answer to the question, “How out-of-touch and heartless can Senate Democrats be?” is, not nearly as out-of-touch and heartless as Republicans think they should be.
A fair Republican criticism–had Reid actually made the remark in the context attributed to him–would have been that by denying health care to only one sick child, he didn’t go far enough.