Washington — Chalk up another veto victory for President Bush.
The Democratic-controlled House failed on Thursday to override his rejection of a politically popular children's health bill, and the White House instantly called for compromise talks on a replacement.
"As long as the bottom line is that 10 million children are covered. That's nonnegotiable," responded Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She pledged that new legislation would be ready within two weeks, and within hours, key lawmakers met to consider changes in the vetoed measure.
The maneuvering followed a 273-156 vote that left supporters 13 short of the two-thirds majority needed to prevail in a bruising veto struggle between congressional Democrats and a politically weakened Republican president.
It was Bush's third veto of the year. He has yet to be overridden, although Democrats say they will succeed in doing so on a water projects bill that will soon go to the White House.
"We won this round," said White House press secretary Dana Perino, despite an aggressive advertising campaign on the insurance bill by Democratic allies that was aimed at GOP lawmakers.
Democrats cited public opinion polls that showed overwhelming support for a health care expansion and they predicted some Republicans would pay a heavy price at the polls for sticking with Bush.
At a cost of $35 billion over five years, the vetoed measure would have added nearly 4 million uninsured children to the insurance program. It provides coverage for those who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, but whose families cannot afford private health care.
"You either stand with our children or you stand against them," said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of the Democratic leadership. "There is no in between."
Critics said the bill was a step toward socialized medicine, that too many adults benefited and that despite an explicit prohibition, it would allow children of illegal immigrants to gain coverage.
Democrats do "not want a low-income children's plan," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
"They want what Hillary Clinton called for in 1994, the first step toward government-run insurance for all," he said. As first lady, Clinton unsuccessfully pushed a plan for universal coverage.
Within an hour of the vote, both sides were staking out their ground for compromise talks.
Perino said Bush wants to "take care of poor children first" and was willing to spend more than he has proposed. Going one step further, senior congressional Republicans said it might be possible to cover more lower-income adults, as long as the states first enrolled 90 percent or 95 percent of their eligible children.
Not long after Perino spoke, key House and Senate Democrats, joined by two Senate Republican supporters of the vetoed bill, met to consider revisions.