President Bush on Oct. 3 vetoed legislation that would have expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, sending the measure back to Congress where the veto could be overturned.

Speaking to reporters, White House spokesperson Dana Perino said the president “remains somebody who’s committed to expanding SCHIP” and hopes to work with congressional leaders to forge a new version of the legislation.

The legislation, known as HR 976, would have increased SCHIP funding to $60 billion over 5 years, far more than what the president sought. Additionally, the president has characterized the bill as a first step towards socialized healthcare and criticized it for raising the income limits for eligibility to allow families that he believes don’t need assistance to take advantage of it.

Congressional leaders blasted the president’s veto.

“Never has it been clearer how detached President Bush is from the priorities of the American people,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “By vetoing a bipartisan bill to renew the successful Children’s Health Insurance Program, President Bush is denying health care to millions of low-income kids in America.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., echoed that sentiment, saying the president “used his cruel veto pen to say ‘I forbid 10 million children from getting the health benefits they deserve.’”

She added that Congress would “continue to work with a bipartisan majority in Congress and 43 governors from across the country to increase support for SCHIP in the House so we can override the veto” and provide coverage to millions of children.

“The President chose to block a bill with strong bipartisan consensus–which has so much potential for good–to force Congress to mount a veto override effort,” Pelosi said. “We remain committed to making SCHIP into law–with or without the President’s support.”

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 67 to 29, suggesting it could override the veto. The House vote approving the bill, 265 to 159, fell short of the two-thirds needed to overturn a veto, and Republicans there said they intend to ensure the bill does not become law.

“Republicans will sustain this veto so we can begin working toward a bipartisan renewal of SCHIP that helps states provide health care to low-income children,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, House minority leader. “Democrats now face an important choice: Either work with Republicans to renew this program or continue to play politics on the backs of our nation’s children.”

Boehner, along with Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Energy & Commerce Committee Ranking Member Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Ways & Means Committee Ranking Member Jim McCrery, R-La., offered their own proposal for an SCHIP extension that would focus on low-income children. The program, they said, should not serve as a replacement for families with private coverage or coverage from other government programs, and should be focused on U.S. citizens.

Insurance industry groups expressed little surprise, but offered their continued support for the program.

“We will continue our efforts to ensure that any future SCHIP bill will take specific steps to improve the premium assistance process for states to voluntarily use SCHIP dollars to subsidize and leverage employer-sponsored coverage so that more families can be covered together at lower costs,” said Janet Trautwein, CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters. She added that the group “believes the inclusion of premium assistance improvements will go a long way toward leveraging premium dollars employers are willing to contribute toward family coverage while helping to ease budgetary pressures on the program.”

Mohit Ghose, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, said, “We continue to support the Senate SCHIP legislation. And we encourage all parties to work together to find a way to reauthorize this critical program.”

The Campaign for America’s Future, an advocacy group supporting the SCHIP legislation, questioned the president’s reasoning for the veto.

“President Bush admits that this program works,” said the group’s co-director, Robert Borosage. “He knows that millions of children now go without adequate health care because their families can’t afford insurance, but he says he has an ‘ideological’ problem with expanding the program because it might provide coverage to children whose families might otherwise find a way to pay for private insurance. Legislators in both parties now must decide whether they stand with the president in defense of private insurance company profits or with children in need of health care. You wouldn’t think this was a hard choice.”