President Bush plans to intensify his campaign to win public and congressional support for restructuring Social Security, warning that it would be a bad idea to delay action as the Senate Republican leader has suggested and politically unwise for lawmakers to oppose private accounts, White House officials said yesterday.
Despite polls showing support for the plan slipping, Bush is confident he is winning the first phase of the public debate over Social Security and has no plans to significantly alter his strategy for enacting the most dramatic changes ever to the venerable system, said senior White House officials who have talked to Bush. Several congressional Republicans, however, said they do not share Bush's optimism and questioned his strategy for enacting changes this year.
One day after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the Senate might not meet Bush's year-end deadline, the White House announced plans to step up its effort to pressure lawmakers into action by dispatching Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials to 60 events in 60 days. Cheney, in particular, will assume a larger role in the effort, including attending town hall meetings with GOP lawmakers.
The "scope and scale goes way beyond anything we have done," said Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who heads to Arkansas today. The president is also privately discussing compromises to win Democratic backing and is likely to signal his support for new protections for low-income workers under Social Security, GOP sources said.
Snow told reporters that Bush also has not ruled out embracing a plan backed by many Democrats to create government-subsidized personal savings accounts outside the existing system. White House officials are privately telling Republicans that Bush is opposed to the idea but does not want to say so because it would appear he is not willing to compromise.
The president has called for everyone younger than 55 to be allowed to divert as much as 4 percent of their income subject to Social Security taxation into individual accounts in exchange for a reduction in their guaranteed benefits. Top White House officials have held a series of meetings to discuss a timetable for Bush to detail other parts of the plan, including his vision for controversial benefit cuts, though final decisions have not been made, according to participants.
The White House is also intensifying efforts to enlist the help of its business supporters. At a private meeting last Thursday, senior adviser Karl Rove signaled to lobbyists that a group run by Business Roundtable, which plans to raise $20 million to promote personal accounts, should be viewed as the White House's muscle in the business community, participants said. Snow huddled this week with the top lobbyists for Fortune 500 companies, some of whom have shown tepid interest in getting involved in the debate.
In meetings with aides, Bush dismissed criticism of a campaign still in its infancy, a senior White House official said. Still, the White House appears sensitive to the complaints. Snow, for instance, called Frist yesterday to discuss the majority leader's statement that it might take a year before the Senate tackles the issue. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the third-ranking leader, told colleagues he was frustrated by Frist's comments and called for a detailed plan to be announced this summer. "I respect the majority leader, but I do think the time to fix Social Security is this year," he said. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan yesterday also urged immediate action.
Frist said in response to a question yesterday that he would not take private accounts within Social Security, the heart of Bush's plan but a deal-breaker for many Democrats, "off the table yet." He clarified his position yesterday through spokesman Bob Stevenson, who said it "would be impossible to imagine a successful plan without personal accounts." Stevenson said Frist wants to get Social Security "done this year."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) scheduled his first hearing on "the future of Social Security" for Wednesday. The hearing will not get into solutions but will lay the groundwork that there is a problem, aides said. At a closed-door meeting of Republican members yesterday morning, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) told them they need to be more aggressive in promoting Bush's plan. "Our job will take guts and time," he said, according to attendees.
After the meeting, DeLay lashed out at AARP, the seniors group that has led opposition to the Bush plan. "It's incredibly irresponsible of the AARP to be against a solution that hasn't even been written yet and running ads trying to convince people that personal retirement accounts is like going to Las Vegas and playing the lottery," he told reporters. "The Democrats have decided that their whole approach is going to be blame Bush. Well, we've seen how that has worked over the last four years."
One month after launching the Social Security campaign, Bush faces a public that is growing increasingly skeptical of personal accounts and a GOP Congress that remains reluctant, but still willing, to tackle the politically explosive issue.
The more people learn about the Bush plan, they more they oppose it, according to a poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The poll, released yesterday, showed that 46 percent of respondents said they support the accounts, down eight percentage points from December; the number of people who said they are familiar with the president's plan has nearly doubled.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was among several who questioned the Bush approach. "The solution should not focus on ownership but on the safety net," he said. "That is where we made a mistake."
Still, Snow and other administration officials who have met with Graham and the six or so Senate Democrats who have not ruled out private accounts said they are confident a deal can be worked out, despite the public posturing.