Five months after President Bush launched his drive to overhaul Social Security, the difficult, if not impossible, task of drafting legislation begins Tuesday when the Senate Finance Committee holds the first hearing on options to secure Social Security's future.
With a cast of Social Security experts well-known in policy circles, the actual hearing is unlikely to produce fireworks. But outside the hearing room, both sides of the Social Security divide are treating the event like a turning point in the war over Social Security's future.
"This is [Bush's] opening salvo in the Congress, and we intend to meet him toe to toe," said Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District of Columbia's delegate to the House.
Liberal activists opposed to Bush's proposal to add private investment accounts to the system plan to canvass Metro stations, farmers markets and other public sites all weekend. Tomorrow, they plan a Capitol Hill news conference with self-identified Republican voters who oppose personal accounts. In New York, Democratic senators and a bevy of Wall Street executives are to highlight what they perceive as the danger of investing Social Security payroll taxes in stocks.
Then on Tuesday, opposition groups, backed by the entire Democratic leadership in Congress, will hold what they bill as a major rally to mark a "national day of unity to protect Social Security."
"We've won the battle for public opinion," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United to Protect Social Security, an umbrella opposition group backed by labor and liberal interest groups. "But the beginning of these hearings really marks a new phase in this war."
Business groups are countering with their own mobilizations. Supporters of private accounts, organized by the business-backed Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, plan to hold a Capitol Hill rally Tuesday at the same time opponents will be gathering. Beth Solomon, a spokeswomen for the National Association for Manufacturers who is detailed to the Social Security initiative, called it a kickoff for their "inside-the-Beltway" advocacy campaign.
But the real work is going on behind the scenes, said Derrick A. Max, the alliance's executive director. Account supporters stepped up lobbying efforts last week, trying to find a consensus that includes private accounts.
"It's not about showmanship. It's about hard work," Max said.
Beneath all the noise, it is unclear whether Bush has been able to shift the political landscape in his favor. Several public opinion polls show increasing concern for the future of Social Security. Heightening that concern was a key goal of the administration's ongoing Social Security blitz. And some polls, including The Washington Post's, have repeatedly shown majority support for the idea of investing some Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds.
But those same polls show support for a Social Security proposal tied to the president's name slipping to new lows. A memo released Friday by Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville cited backing for the Bush proposal at 34 percent. "Support for the president's Social Security initiative has collapsed," the memo said. Last week's stock-market roller-coaster ride has only heightened fears about allowing workers to convert some of their traditional Social Security benefits to investment returns from stocks and bonds, Democrats say.
Such numbers have not spooked Bush. After a White House meeting with lawmakers Wednesday, the president took Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) aside to tell him how well his "60 stops in 60 days" tour is going, Rangel recalled. Then Bush warned that voters would punish members of Congress in 2006 if they failed to act on Social Security's long-term problems.
That is not how progress has been portrayed, Rangel said he responded. "I told him if he is right, the press has not been very kind to him."
Bush also summoned Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a Finance Committee member and potential swing vote, to the White House on Wednesday to discuss Social Security. Conrad countered that Social Security should be tackled as part of a broader response to the current budget and trade deficits and the far larger problem of Medicare's looming shortfall. After four tax cuts in four years, Bush also must be willing to address revenue, Conrad told him.
"I've taken the consistent position that I could not support accounts financed by massive debt or steep benefit reductions," Conrad said Friday. "If you look at the president's plan, it really does both."
After his own overtures to Democrats failed, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said last week he will move forward with Social Security legislation, hoping to push a private-accounts plan out of his committee this summer -- on a party-line vote if necessary.
That would be a change from the committee's traditional bipartisan comity, but there is no guarantee Grassley can even do that. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) has been unwavering in her opposition to diverting Social Security taxes to personal accounts, a position underscored Friday by Snowe aides. And two other Finance Committee Republicans, Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Craig Thomas (Wyo.), have expressed skepticism.
Supporters and opponents of the president's ideas say Grassley's determination will help the White House cause, by ramping up pressure for compromise. "It keeps it from being dead, dead, dead," Rangel said.
Max was a little more positive. "There's a big difference between what people are saying publicly and what people are saying privately," he said, insisting that even Democrats are ready to make a deal. "I think Grassley is absolutely right to move forward."