President George W. Bush on Wednesday vetoed legislation expanding a health care program mostly aimed at poor children, a politically risky move ahead of the November 2008 elections.

The president’s Democratic foes, unable to curtail the unpopular war in Iraq, have seized on his opposition to their plan to build up the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) as a potent political weapon.

Bush’s top Republican allies have declared they have the votes to prevent the US Congress from overriding his veto — even as some rank-and-file have worriedly surveyed a political landscape dominated by the war.

About 72 percent of Americans backed the legislation, according a recent public opinion poll by the Washington Post and ABC television. The survey had an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points.

Aware of the potential political costs, Bush formally rejected the bill behind closed doors at the White House, with a junior aide announcing the move over the loudspeakers in the media workspace.

It was just the fourth time the president used his veto power since taking office in January 2001. US voters will decide their next president and control of the US Congress in the November 2008 elections.

Democrats immediately pounded Bush, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accusing him of “denying health care to millions of low-income kids” and vowing to “fight hard” to win the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.

“With today’s veto, President Bush has turned his back on America’s children and he stands alone,” Reid charged.

The White House had opposed the bill as a step towards socialized medicine, and complained that it would be too expensive, would induce some families now using private insurers to switch to government-funded coverage, and would extend to families that the president did not consider “poor.”

“Poor kids, first,” Bush told supporters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, adding that he hoped to work with lawmakers on a compromise “that focuses on the poor children” and was flexible on the overall dollar amount.

But “the policies of the government ought to be, help people find private insurance, not federal coverage. And that’s where the philosophical divide comes in,” he said.

SCHIP, a program jointly managed by the states and Washington, subsidizes health insurance for roughly 6.6 million people, most of them children, who fall in the gap between being able to pay for private care and being eligible for another government health care program, Medicare.

The Senate passed the SCHIP program in September with 67 members of the 100 member chamber voting for it — enough to override a veto, while the margin was not as wide in the House of Representatives.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the program would allow 4.4 million more children to enroll in the program. The cost of 35 billion dollars over five years would be offset by raising the tax on a packet of cigarettes by 61 cents to one dollar.

Veteran Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy slammed the move, branding it “the most inexplicable veto in the history of the country” and charging “it is incomprehensible, it is intolerable, it is unacceptable.”

“This is a defining issue, not only about children but about the values of this country.”

Senator Joseph Biden, a 2008 presidential candidate, warned Bush had “denied health insurance to 3.8 million kids.”

“He’s willing to spend billions and billions of dollars in Iraq, but he’s not willing to invest in our kids’ healthcare. It is unconscionable and wrong,” said Biden.

Democratic Senator Max Baucus signaled Democrats would fight to convince the 15 or so Republicans needed to join Democrats in the House to fight to override the veto.

“The President is wrong, the Congress is right, it’s that clear, it’s that simple.”

And several Republican senators gave notice of looming trouble for Bush, and one, Chuck Grassley of Iowa vowed to call Republican House members to ask them to desert the president.

“The administration’s position … it was either ‘my way or the highway.’

“Well, that’s not how the legislative process works. Now we’ve got to do what we can to try to override,” Grassley said.

Senator Orrin Hatch, a normally loyal Republican, also said he was dismayed by the veto.

“If we’re truly compassionate, it seems to me we’d want to endorse this program.

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