President Bush pleaded for patience yesterday from Republican lawmakers who will shape Social Security legislation, summoning them to the White House at a time when they are expressing increasing frustration about his handling of his top priority for the year.
No Democrats were on the invitation list for the late-afternoon meeting at the White House, reflecting Bush's desire to keep his team together before he worries about selling his ideas to the opposition.
Polling data to be presented to House Republicans on Friday at a retreat at a West Virginia resort show that a majority of voters 55 or older believe that major changes to Social Security are necessary, but that the party and White House face a struggle to sell their solution to voters. The research, by the Tarrance Group and Public Opinion Strategies, found that a majority of respondents believe GOP policies have hurt seniors.
"Both President Bush and Republicans in Congress are deficient on messenger credibility and issue handling confidence on reforming Social Security," says a 35-page analysis to be presented to lawmakers that was provided by Republican sources.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told reporters before the White House meeting that on Social Security, the Senate "needs to engage the American people much better, and I would say the administration does as well."
Senators and administration officials said that during the meeting, Bush emphasized the need to act quickly after he presents his proposals, and both sides said most senators agreed that something needs to be done.
Bush's plan calls for the addition of individual stock and bond accounts for younger workers, although he has not yet said how he would pay for the change. Administration officials said they are still settling on details of the plan, which Bush plans to explain in his State of the Union address Feb. 2.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) is pushing for a much broader restructuring of Social Security than Bush envisions. Thomas said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that lawmakers should examine the effect on benefits of longevity by race, occupation and sex.
The Democratic National Committee sent a fundraising e-mail based on the comments. It sought contributions and 100,000 signatures "calling on President Bush to disavow the notion of tying Social Security benefits to race or gender."
DNC Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said in a conference call with reporters that Thomas's ideas would "create havoc within the system." When a reporter said the debate could aid blacks if it stopped the eligibility age from rising, McAuliffe maintained that Thomas "is attacking race and gender."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, pressed repeatedly to rule out the idea, said that those were Thomas's views. McClellan said the administration has "made it very clear that there are going to be a lot of views expressed during the course of this discussion."
Democrats are reveling in the Republicans' woes. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters that Social Security "is obviously something that is causing them a great deal of trouble."
"Republicans are in disarray," he added.
Another dissonant note was sounded by religious conservatives, who warned the White House that their followers are split over the wisdom of revising Social Security. Gary L. Bauer, president of the socially conservative group American Values, said about 60 like-minded groups wrote to White House senior adviser Karl Rove last week to "observe the fact that there are decidedly mixed opinions among pro-family conservatives at the grass roots about Social Security privatization."
As first reported by the New York Times, the groups linked their willingness to help Bush on Social Security to the White House's willingness to fight for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
McClellan said Bush is "going to continue speaking out about the importance of protecting the sanctity of marriage and moving forward on a constitutional amendment."