At this early stage of the game, Social Security reform, President Bush's number one domestic goal, is hanging by a thread. House Republican leaders are reluctant to force members to vote on the issue unless there is a clear prospect of Senate approval. And the votes to break a filibuster and pass it in the Senate are just not there at this time.
Bush has barely begun his public relations and political campaign to drum up support for his idea of allowing younger workers to divert some of their Social Security taxes into private accounts, but already he finds himself paddling upstream.
Democratic opposition is nearly unanimous -- and highly energized -- while House Republicans are plainly nervous about the prospect of facing White House pressure for such a vote.
Roy Blunt, the Missouri congressman who as House majority whip bears direct respon- sibility for lining up the votes to change the landmark New Deal program, told me he would be "reluctant to try to do this unless the Senate were ready to approve it -- or had already voted for it."
Another senior legislative aide said, "We want to help the president, but we have to be fair to our members. We've told them to keep talking and listening on the issue at home, but until they've actually cast their vote, there's no reason for them to commit themselves."
"No one wants to ask them for a hard vote that isn't going to produce a bill," he added.
On the Senate side, Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has claimed he is certain he can keep Republicans short of the 60 votes they would need to end debate and force a vote on a Social Security bill. The Senate includes 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and an independent who often joins the Democrats.
Blunt indicated that it is the prospect of failure in the Senate, rather than the absence of visible Democratic support in the House, that makes Social Security reform hard to pass on his side of the Capitol. "There are a relatively small number of our people who don't want to do it," Blunt said, "and for most of us, it's not that important what the Democrats here decide to do."
But actually casting a vote that would make a lawmaker a target for AARP, organized labor and other groups that have come out against Bush's proposal would be foolhardy if the best that could be achieved were a symbolic victory for a bill sure to be rejected by the Senate.
On the other hand, Blunt said, if the political resistance could somehow be overcome, the rewards for Republicans might be substantial. "The first thing that would happen is that current retirees would discover that their benefits have been protected -- and they would be relieved. Within a couple years, younger people would start getting quarterly statements showing how their individual retirement nest eggs are beginning to grow."
"The idea that these accounts will be yours to control is our strongest selling point," Blunt said. "I've told Al Hubbard [the president's new economics guru] that anything we can do to strengthen the idea of ownership, we should do. Once people have saved enough to pay for a decent annuity, we ought to free up the money [in the individual accounts] for whatever they want to do."
Over the decades, Blunt said, the president's plan can give a much wider swath of voters a real sense that they are "stockholders in America." That in turn will change the political philosophy of Democrats and shift the tide in future Congresses in a conservative direction. "There are no permanent majorities in America," Blunt said. But if Democrats' constituents begin to think of themselves as stockholders in American business, it won't matter as much which party is in control. Tax and regulatory policy will begin to converge in ways friendly to business.
All that makes it worthwhile -- in the eyes of conservatives such as Blunt -- to try for Social Security reform. But for now, the situation is eerily reminiscent of what faced Bill and Hillary Clinton on their health care reform project in 1994. House Democrats were uncertain the Senate would act and vice versa, so in the end, neither chamber ever held a floor vote on the measure.
That is what George Bush could face this time around.