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The distinguishing characteristic of this Congress was on vivid display the other day when the House debated a bill to expand the federal program that provides health insurance for children of the working poor.

Even when it is performing a useful service, this Congress manages to look ugly and mean-spirited.

The State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is a 10-year-old proven success. Originally a product of bipartisan consensus, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, it was one of the last domestic achievements before Monica and impeachment fever seized control.

It is up for renewal this year, and suddenly has become a bone of contention. President Bush underfunded it in his budget; the $4.8-billion extra he proposed spending in the next five years would not finance insurance even for all those who are currently being served.

But when the Senate Finance Committee proposed boosting the funding to $35-billion - financed by a hefty boost in tobacco taxes - Bush threatened a veto, and he raised the rhetorical stakes by claiming that the measure was a step toward "government health insurance."

That was surprising news to Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah, two staunch conservatives who had joined in sponsoring the Senate bill, which enjoyed a 17-4 margin in the Finance Committee.

But rather than meet the president's unwise challenge with a strong bipartisan alternative, the House Democratic leadership decided to raise the partisan stakes even higher by bringing out a $50-billion bill that not only expanded SCHIP, but also would curtail the private Medicare benefit delivery system that Bush favors.

To add insult to injury, the House Democratic leaders then took a leaf from the old Republican playbook and brought the swollen bill to the floor with minimal time for debate and denied Republicans any opportunity to offer amendments.

The result was undisguised fury - and some really ugly exchanges on the floor. The worst, given voice by former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, among others, was the charge that the Democrats were opening the program to illegal immigrants. In fact, governors of both parties support the certification system included in the bill for assuring that families meet citizenship requirements; the governors know that too many legal residents have been wrongly disqualified because they could not locate their birth certificates.

In the end, the House bill passed on a near-party-line vote, 225-204, far short of the margin that would be needed to override the promised Bush veto. That means the program will probably have to be given a temporary renewal before the Sept. 30 deadline, and eventually, Democrats and the White House will negotiate an agreement.

So it will go down as one more example of an unnecessary conflict. No rational person could explain why a program that both parties support and both want to continue could ignite such a fight.

But that is Washington in this era of polarized politics. As Congress heads out for its August recess, it has accomplished about as much as is usually the case at this stage. It passed an overdue increase in the minimum wage and an overdue package of ethics reforms. It moved some of the routine legislation.

But what the public has seen and heard is mainly the ugly sound of partisan warfare. The Senate let a handful of dissident Republicans hijack the immigration bill. Its Democratic leadership marched up the hill and back down on repeated futile efforts to circumscribe American involvement in Iraq, then shamefully pulled back from a final vote when a constructive Republican alternative to the Bush policy was on offer.

The less-than-vital issue of the firing of U.S. attorneys has occupied more time and attention than the threat of a terrorist enclave in Pakistan - or the growth of long-term debts that could sink Medicare and Social Security.

And when this Congress had an opportunity to take a relatively simple, incremental step to extend health insurance to a vulnerable population, the members managed to make a mess of it.

It's no wonder the approval ratings of Congress are so dismal.

David Broder's e-mail address is

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