WASHINGTON (AP) – Having failed to add a single Republican vote in their latest bid for a veto-proof margin on a children’s health bill, chastened House Democrats are trying a humbler tack: talking directly with the lawmakers whose support they need.

Democratic leaders are scheduled to meet Monday with a handful of Republicans seen as crucial to deciding whether more changes to the bill will give backers the all-important two-thirds majority that eludes them.

Until now, House Democrats have largely avoided direct talks with these Republicans, who oppose the Democratic-drafted bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program but suggest they might be open to compromise. Instead, Democrats dealt this week with the few dozen Republicans who broke with President Bush from the start, counting on them to convert at least a dozen GOP colleagues.

The strategy dissolved into acrimony Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted on voting on the proposed expansion despite Republicans’ pleas for more time to build support.

The measure failed to attract any new Republicans, dealing a blow to Democratic leaders and triggering recriminations from all sides.

“Bridge Burners” was Friday’s headline on a statement by the House Republican Conference. Pelosi’s leadership team, it said, offers “no bipartisanship, no direction, no results.”

Bush said from the White House: “After I vetoed their last SCHIP bill, I designated members of my administration to work with Congress to find common ground. Congressional leaders never met with them. Instead, the House again passed a bill that they knew would not become law.”

His spokeswoman, Dana Perino, went further, saying key Democrats are happy to keep falling short so they can run campaign ads against Bush’s allies.

“They want the issue,” Perino said. “They don’t want a solution.”

Facing such rebukes, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel – their party’s second- and third-ranking House leaders – have agreed to meet Monday with several Republicans from a group of 38 considered central to the SCHIP outcome. Lawmakers said Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., would head the GOP group. Her office did not respond to several requests for comment Friday.

The 38 Republicans wrote a letter Oct. 18 to Bush outlining their priorities for renewing the children’s health program. House Democrats used the letter as a guideline for changing the first SCHIP bill, which Bush vetoed. The House fell 13 votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority when it tried to override that veto last week.

While often citing the 38 Republicans’ concerns in revising the bill, top House Democrats did not meet with them until shortly before Thursday’s vote. By then, many of the Republicans accused Democrats of paying them only lip service and making cosmetic, politically motivated changes to the bill. Some described the meeting, hosted by Hoyer, as loud and contentious.

Later that day, none of the 38 Republicans voted for the revised bill, and supporters again fell short of a two-thirds majority.

On Monday, Hoyer and Emanuel hope for a quieter, more productive meeting, lawmakers and aides said Friday. If the group can agree to a list of changes that might attract at least a dozen more Republicans, they said, members will ask the Senate to incorporate them as amendments when it votes on the health insurance measure next week.

Some legislators consider the effort a long shot. Several Republicans said House Democrats acted insincerely this week. And the back-to-back votes that fell short of a veto-override margin seemed to underscore Bush’s clout in Congress.

“Not only did they not get more Republicans” in Thursday’s vote on the revised bill, but “they alienated a lot of us who supported it before,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.

Both versions of the bill would have added $35 billion over five years to the health program, which is designed to help working-class families obtain medical insurance. Addressing concerns raised in the Republican letter, backers revised the bill to reduce or eliminate participation by adults, illegal immigrants and families earning more than $62,000 or so.

But Bush and House GOP leaders said the changes were riddled with loopholes. On Friday, the president appeared to have lost patience.

“Incredibly enough,” Bush said, “the Senate will take up the same bill next week, which wastes valuable time.”

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the speaker wants “to do everything we can to get this bill to pass” in a form that will become law.

If next week’s negotiations fail to produce a veto-proof bill, some Democrats say, Congress may reauthorize the health insurance program at its current levels for a year. Then, exploiting what they see as a Republican weakness, Democrats may revisit the $35 billion expansion question shortly before the 2008 elections.

AP-ES-10-26-07 1824EDT

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