President Bush's bid to add individual accounts to Social Security faces such formidable opposition in the Senate that its supporters may be unable to bring it to a vote, according to a Washington Post survey of senators.
An overwhelming majority of Democratic senators said they will oppose, under any circumstances, Bush's plan to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into individual investment accounts that would follow them into retirement. A few others said they will not support such accounts if they require substantial government borrowing. Even many Republicans say that is inevitable because the alternative involves unacceptably large cuts in benefits or tax increases to replace the diverted taxes or both.
Combined, these Democrats form a coalition large enough -- more than 41 members -- to use delaying tactics to keep the proposal from reaching a vote in the 100-member chamber. The Post survey of the Senate's 44 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent indicates there are at least 42 -- and perhaps 44 -- who firmly oppose personal investment accounts, particularly if they are financed with borrowed money.
Vice President Cheney has said the Bush accounts would cost "trillions of dollars." Democrats put the price tag at $5 trillion over 20 years.
In the clearest sign yet that Bush's efforts to win bipartisan support are flagging, several Democrats whom the White House has been courting said they will not support the accounts at all. They include Sens. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Mary Landrieu (La.). Three other Bush targets -- Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.), Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) -- said they will not support individual accounts financed by heavy borrowing.
Bush, who has needed the support of some moderate and conservative Democrats to push through his major initiatives, yesterday appealed to all Democrats to cut a compromise. "If you see a problem, members of Congress, regardless of your party, you have an obligation to come to the table," he said in a speech in Louisville. "Let's work together to solve it. All ideas are on the table." Once the public realizes the seriousness of Social Security's long-term problems, Bush said, "I pity the politicians who stand in the way of a solution."
Told of The Post's survey, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said, "We feel very good about where we are with the Congress. A growing number of members from both sides of the aisle acknowledge there is a serious problem and are talking about possible solutions."
In the Post survey of the one independent and 44 Democratic senators, only two -- Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) -- did not criticize Bush's plan and said they will consider it once he provides more details. Two other Democrats -- Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii -- did not close the door to considering individual accounts, with Sarbanes saying he objects to such surveys. However, Sarbanes and Inouye cited a March 3 letter to Bush as representing their feelings about his plan.
The letter, signed by 41 Democrats and independent Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.), said the Bush plan is "unacceptable." It called on the president to "unambiguously announce that you reject privatized accounts funded with Social Security dollars. . . ."
Two of the three Democrats who did not sign the letter -- Conrad and Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) -- told The Post this week that they would not support individual accounts under the scenarios that White House officials have generally outlined. Conrad said he will not agree to personal accounts "financed by massive borrowing and steep cuts in benefits."
That leaves Nelson, who faces a potentially tough reelection race next year, as the only Senate Democrat who did not sign the letter. He told The Post this week that he is open to considering Bush's proposals.
Although most Democrats appear resolute in their opposition, the White House is stepping up its outreach to what it considers the half-dozen or so Senate Democrats who might be persuaded to back personal accounts. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Allan B. Hubbard, the president's chief economist, are leading the effort. Without the support of some Democrats, White House officials privately concede the Bush plan will fail.
Based on private conversations over the past two weeks, White House officials said they were led to believe Lieberman, Nelson, Landrieu, Pryor and Carper were open to the individual accounts.
Snow has met with most of the targeted Democratic senators, including a recent meeting with a bipartisan group led by Lieberman. But Lieberman told The Post this week that he will not support Bush's plan, saying, "to me, the main goal is solvency" of the Social Security trust fund. Pryor's spokesman said his boss opposes personal accounts as described by the White House. Carper said through a spokesman that he would "oppose any sort of carve-out account," the term used for an investment account that would divert payroll taxes rather than create a new revenue source for retirement benefits. Landrieu answered "no" when The Post asked: "Are there any circumstances in which you would support allowing workers to divert any portion of their payroll taxes into Social Security personal accounts?"
Unlike recent battles over tax cuts, the threat of Bush campaigning for their defeat does not appear to be scaring Democratic senators, White House officials concede. Some aides are surprised at the unified and stubborn opposition of Democrats and, in a tone that sounds more pessimistic than a few weeks ago, talk of how a defeat of the Bush plan this year could lead to GOP congressional and gubernatorial losses in 2006.
Key Democrats are signaling their opposition to carve-out accounts just as top White House officials are drawing a line in the sand on the issue. Hubbard, in an interview published in yesterday's USA Today, said the Democrats' call for Bush to drop the plan for individual accounts financed by payroll taxes is "absolutely a non-starter."
The list of Senate Republicans who have refused to endorse the Bush accounts includes Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.).
Researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.