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At Home, a Hard Sell On Social Security

Wisconsin Republican Touts Bush's Plan

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page A01

STURTEVANT, Wis., Feb. 21 -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spent his holiday discovering that President Bush's idea of adding personal accounts to Social Security can be as hard to sell back home as it is in Washington.

Ryan, who will help write the legislation as a member of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security and is a longtime proponent of changing the popular government retirement program, is pushing the White House idea to farmers and factory workers throughout his district in the southeastern corner of the dairy state, with 35 "listening sessions" in 12 days.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) talks about Social Security in Sturtevant, Wis. Ryan is traveling his district to promote the White House idea of personal accounts. (Scott Anderson -- Racine Journal Times)

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Beginning his seven-stop day in the corn-growing town of Darien at breakfast time Monday, Ryan drew five people -- with an average age of 69 -- for a PowerPoint presentation in which he outlined what he called the "ugly options" of tax increases and benefit cuts if Social Security is not changed. He touted individual stock and bond accounts as a way younger workers can more than double their future benefits and put up a photograph of Albert Einstein along with his quote about the powerful force of compound interest.

But Jim Kieselburg, 66, a retired printing manager who now sells appliances part time, said he is worried about a market crash. "Worst-case scenario -- if everything goes flop?" Kieselburg asked.

"Even if the markets do half as good as they have historically, you'll still be doing a lot better than you are now," Ryan said. "But it's a good question."

The lawmaker won some converts as he was driven on icy two-lane roads in a green Chevrolet Tahoe. But, as Republican officials have predicted, the process takes patience.

Ryan, who at 35 is one of the 10 youngest members of Congress, is taking the most aggressive approach to a chore that faces all rank-and-file Republican lawmakers: gauging reaction to Bush's idea in their states and districts, and then advising the leadership about the political risk of plunging ahead.

Strategists in the House and Senate said that what lawmakers hear during the Presidents' Day recess could determine whether leaders pursue passage of the centerpiece of Bush's second-term domestic agenda or conclude that voters don't have the appetite for rewriting the Social Security Act, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 70 years ago this August.

Administration officials and Republican congressional leaders acknowledge that Bush's plan has yet to gain traction. Although they say they are at the beginning of a long education process, there are reasons for them to worry.

One is that not all of Ryan's colleagues are following his lead. Administration and congressional officials said many Republican members remain afraid of taking on Social Security, and many fewer than the party had hoped are holding Social Security events this week.

Republican officials said at least 70 of the party's House members are holding town hall meetings this week, not all of them devoted specifically to Social Security, while House Democrats said they will hold more than 90 Social Security events this week.

Under plans being discussed by the White House, workers younger than 55 could divert as much as 4 percent of income subject to Social Security taxation into individual investment accounts beginning in 2009. They could invest the money in stocks and bonds and draw on it only after retiring. Workers currently pay 6.2 percent of their taxable wages to finance the retirement system, an amount matched by their employers.

Democrats contend that the GOP skittishness is a sign that Bush's idea is taking on water. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said that Bush wants to "take the 'security' out of Social Security" and that Republican lawmakers "seem to be running for cover."

Ryan, a father of three, was the keynote speaker at the weekend Conservative Political Action Conference, a key venue for up-and-coming Republicans. Last year, Ryan introduced a Social Security plan with Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) that would allow workers to divert an average of half their payroll taxes to private accounts, a larger amount than the White House is considering.

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