Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said yesterday that the Bush administration has yet to sell American voters on its plan to revise Social Security, but a substantial number of Republican lawmakers are refusing to help -- either sitting on the sidelines or actively criticizing the plan.
With Congress taking its first week-long break since President Bush formally outlined his bid to add private accounts to Social Security, the relative handful of GOP members who are campaigning full bore on its behalf are frequently finding skeptical audiences. Many of their colleagues, meanwhile, are taking a wait-and-see approach or voicing more criticism than praise of the proposal.
"I am negatively inclined toward the private, personal accounts paid for out of Social Security employer and employee taxes," said Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (Va.), who is among several dozen Republicans showing up on Democratic-maintained lists of naysayers. With congressional Democrats showing virtually solid opposition to the president's plan, overwhelming GOP backing in both houses is crucial to its prospects.
Snow, who briefed reporters in Washington before heading to Florida to campaign for Bush's plan, said he recognizes that many in Congress are wary of diverting a portion of younger workers' Social Security taxes into private accounts, which could be invested in stocks and bonds. "We still have some work to do," Snow said.
He predicted that Americans will be won over as they learn more about the plan. "We're at the early stages of this education process and engagement process," Snow said. "We're going to hit this hard. We're going to get the facts out."
To be sure, some Republican lawmakers are arguing strongly on the plan's behalf, but the going is not easy. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the Senate's third-ranking GOP leader, is touting the plan with a slide show and a well-prepared speech at 10 public forums throughout Pennsylvania this week, several of them on college campuses.
On Tuesday at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Santorum's first rhetorical question -- "anybody know what happens in 2008?" -- was instantly answered from someone in the audience: "George Bush leaves office!" That set the tone for many of the day's comments, although the senator's audiences at Drexel and later in Chester, Pa., seemed about evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the president's proposal.
Santorum kept his composure all day, arguing that the approaching baby boomers' retirement -- beginning in 2008 -- will swamp Social Security if it is not restructured. "Anytime you have an open town hall meeting like this," he told reporters in Chester, "you're going to get people who feel very passionate."
For every avid GOP backer such as Santorum, there seem to be several colleagues waiting for Bush to do the selling job. For example, Pennsylvania's other Republican senator, Arlen Specter, is noncommittal on the Social Security proposal and is scheduled to be in Washington today to talk about Judiciary Committee matters.
Such wariness appears widespread. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) is home with constituents this week but is not holding meetings on Social Security "because we've been getting a steady inflow of opinions" -- mostly opposing the president's plan -- said his spokeswoman, Kristen Quigley. "He wants to wait until details are hammered out before he makes a statement," she said.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told the Associated Press: "I'm looking at it but I'm not sold on it." Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) told reporters earlier this month: "There are a lot of unanswered questions and until I have the answers to them, I am still in the 'withholding judgment' category." Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), launching a Senate bid this week, is "waiting for more details" before taking a stand on the Bush plan, spokeswoman Anne Mason said yesterday.
Democrats gleefully collect and distribute such comments. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has compiled quotes from 29 House Republicans criticizing elements of Bush's plan, although many were made before the 2004 elections.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who has predicted that no Democratic senators will back Bush's plan, said yesterday: "Now that it's clear that the Republican privatization plan actually makes matters worse. . . . it's no wonder that so many Republican politicians are running away from it as fast as they can."
Snow, in his briefing, said the president is not committed to a proposal to link future Social Security benefits to increases in prices rather than wages, which would result in lower benefits. "There are a variety of ways to deal with the long-term shortfall," in the Social Security trust fund, he said.