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They’re doing it for the kids. The nation’s leading drug makers have underwritten the largest political issue advertising campaign on the airwaves this election season, spending $13.1 million in the past five weeks on TV spots praising members of Congress who voted to expand a popular federal-state health insurance program for lower- and middle-income children.

The ads, underwritten by the huge drug industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), name some politicians locked in tight races, some who are coasting to reelection, and some who are not even running. Nicole Korkolis, spokeswoman for the new nonprofit running the ads, America’s Agenda: Health Care for Kids, said that’s because the organization’s aim is not to influence the races. Instead, she says the group’s goal is to keep the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, at the top of the legislative agenda.

“These are not campaign ads in any way,” she said. “We’re singling out people who voted on SCHIP in the past who we believe may in some cases be under pressure to change their vote. This is really an issues advertising campaign.” The commercials show photos of the lawmakers and note that they “helped pass health care coverage for uninsured children,” and urge viewers to call and tell the member of Congress “to keep fighting for our kids.”

Congress was stymied last late last year in its effort to override President Bush’s veto of a bill to increase the reach of SCHIP from 6.6 million to 10 million youngsters. Unable to garner more votes and facing new Congressional Budget Office projections of growing costs, Democratic leaders last month abandoned efforts to revive the fight in this Congress.

A few days later, America’s Agenda filed the first notice with the Federal Election Commission that it was purchasing ads funded by PhRMA. So far, the group has singled out 15 House members (including Colorado Senate candidate Mark Udall) and 13 senators who voted in favor of a larger SCHIP program. Most of the candidates named are Democrats, but the group does include three Republicans: Representative Phil English of Pennsylvania and Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, who are embroiled in tough races, and Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is ahead in polls. The America’s Agenda ads make no mention of the fact that all three of the Democrats running against these GOP candidates also support SCHIP expansion.

The most recent FEC filing for America’s Agenda, on October 15, illustrates how it extends its pat on the back to both safe and endangered candidates. Among the four named in its latest $416,815 round of ads, America’s Agenda was praising the SCHIP efforts of Democratic Senators Max Baucus of Montana and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. Both are well ahead in their races, but Baucus, as Finance Committee chairman and Lautenberg, who has sponsored SCHIP legislation in the past, are key point men in the children’s health debate. The other two candidates are House Democrats fighting hard to keep their seats in swing districts: Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Tim Mahoney of Florida. (The filing came a day after Mahoney admitted to an affair with a former staffer, but America’s Agenda also bought ads lauding Mahoney before the sex scandal revelation, in September.)

The America’s Agenda ads also heap praise on members of Congress who are not even up for reelection, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.

America’s Agenda is headed up by a prominent former labor leader, Doug Dority, who until 2004 was president of the 1.4 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. But 100 percent of the ad campaign funding has come from PhRMA, the FEC filings show.

PhRMA was one of a slew of health industry groups supporting SCHIP expansion, as the Center for Public Integrity noted when it reported previously on the pharmaceutical industry’s record lobbying last year.

The SCHIP program, enacted in 1997, aims to cover children in households where income is modest, but too high to qualify for Medicaid. SCHIP has reduced the number of low-income uninsured children in the United States by 25 percent, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. The SCHIP expansion Congress voted on last fall would have added about $7 billion per year to the $5 billion-a-year program. But President Bush likened it to a move toward socialized medicine, arguing the measure would push people with private health insurance into the government plan and would accelerate a trend already underway in the states to extend coverage to adults.

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