Bill Cassidy

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., speaks to reporters, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) ORG XMIT: DCJM107

Jacquelyn Martin

After failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act or pass just about any other legislation of major significance, the Republicans who control both houses of Congress are back at it, this time aiming to vastly revamp the tax code.

If you're to believe their rhetoric, it's the most pressing matter on their plates, even though, as with the health care effort, there's little consensus over major components of the still-evolving bill. Still up for plenty of debate is the question of how to pay for the proposed tax cuts, which tilt toward businesses and the wealthy. Nor do most experts back the party's contention that huge cuts in business taxes will trickle down into the pockets of the middle class.

Still, even if the bill were in much better shape, it's hard to make a case for its urgency, given what else is languishing on Congress's to-do list. Particularly when you consider one major overdue task: Renewing the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage for 9 million kids and pregnant women nationwide in households that would be otherwise be challenged finding insurance in the marketplace. That includes 121,000 CHIP clients in Louisiana.

The CHIP program expired on Sept. 30, and while nobody has lost insurance yet, the clock is ticking. In Louisiana, the money is expected to run out in February if Congress doesn't act. The state could shift resources from other health programs to make up the shortfall, even though that would just add to its severe budget woes, but about 6,300 kids and pregnant women would likely still lose care. Eleven states, including Mississippi, are schedule to run out of money at year's end.

It's worth noting that, unlike the Affordable Care Act and even Medicaid for adults, CHIP is not controversial.

Historically, Democrats and Republicans alike have backed the investment, and every member of Louisiana's mostly-Republican delegation remains supportive, in theory. U.S. Sen. John Kennedy said recently that "I realize the importance of CHIP to children across Louisiana," and U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a former Charity system physician who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, is working to get the program reauthorized before kids start to lose coverage. All five Republican members of Congress voted for a House bill to fund it.

That bill came with a big asterisk, though, which is why Democrats as a whole, and Louisiana's lone Democrat, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, voted no. The House bill relies upon raiding a preventative health program set up under the ACA, which the party has been trying to undermine all year. The GOP-backed bill, which faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, also proposes cutting some Medicare funding for high-income seniors. Richmond said the proposal amounts to declaring a zero-sum game, in effect taking health care from some to provide it to others.

So a program that everyone purports to love has become yet another pawn in the Washington's never-ending partisan wars. And as politicians in Washington jockey for relative advantage, state health officials and governments, not to mention these kids' parents, are left to worry about what the future holds.

It would be nice to believe that Congress will act before the money runs out, because not to do so would be a clear abdication of its responsibility.

Unfortunately, there's been an awful lot of abdicating these days. And the current drive to pass a pass a big tax cut and give President Donald Trump something of significance to sign threatens to consume all of Washington's energy. This despite the fact that the big proposed tax cuts for business and rich people, and smaller breaks for many others — but not everyone, analysts say — aren't likely to change many lives.

What could change lives is a failure to fund CHIP, which benefits families who don't have a lot of other options. The simple fact that it remains such a challenge is just one more symptom of Congress's bewildering priorities.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.