WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Congressional Republicans, after three months of internal debate, this weekend launched a months-long campaign to try to convince constituents that rewriting the Social Security law would be cheaper and less risky than leaving it alone, as the White House opened a campaign to pressure several Senate Democrats to support the changes.
The Republicans left an annual retreat in the Allegheny Mountains with a 104-page playbook titled "Saving Social Security," a deliberate echo of the language President Bill Clinton used to argue that the retirement system's trust fund should be built up in anticipation of the baby boomers' retirement.
The congressional Republicans' confidential plan was developed with the advice of pollsters, marketing experts and communication consultants, and was provided to The Washington Post by a Republican official. The blueprint urges lawmakers to promote the "personalization" of Social Security, suggesting ownership and control, rather than "privatization," which "connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security." Democratic strategists said they intend to continue fighting the Republican plan by branding it privatization, and assert that depiction is already set in people's minds.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to say Monday in a "prebuttal" to President Bush's State of the Union address that her party will not "let a guaranteed benefit become a guaranteed gamble."
The Republican's book, with a golden nest egg on the cover, urges the GOP to "talk in simple language," "keep the numbers small," "avoid percentages; your audience will try to calculate them in their head" and "acknowledge risks," because listeners "know they can lose their investments."
Party leaders said the gathering marked a change from debating how gingerly to take on Social Security, to beginning to work aggressively on doing it while trying to minimize the political risk.
Although reservations remain among lawmakers who might be vulnerable to a Democratic challenge, the White House and congressional Republicans tried to reassure critics by refining the substance and packaging of the ideas. Karl Rove, the White House senior adviser, told the group that Bush's proposal for the accounts, which would allow younger workers to put some of their payroll taxes into stocks and bonds, would be conservatively structured to give people only a few choices, similar to a federal plan to which many lawmakers belong.
Bush, who rarely mentions his daughters in public, referred to the twins during a passionate, closed-door question period Friday in which he contended that today's workers will be disappointed when they retire if nothing is done.
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who as majority whip is the House's chief vote counter, said that during the retreat, members went "from being cautious to being cautiously optimistic" about passing Social Security legislation this year. He acknowledged that in taking on an issue that has been a strength of Democrats for generations, the GOP is "way out there beyond our defenses."
"We realize that almost everything has to go right to get this done," Blunt said. "This is such a hard thing to do that it wouldn't take much for us to not be able to do it. We absolutely couldn't even consider it if we didn't have the president's total commitment to do everything he can do to lead this debate."
Lawmakers said a turning point came Friday when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who has been leery of taking on Social Security, argued that the caucus had a "moral obligation" to do so.
During the three-day gathering at the Greenbrier resort, Republicans resolved to devote hundreds of town meetings and PowerPoint presentations to Social Security in their states and districts.
Bush will kick off the offensive by using his State of the Union address on Wednesday to build a sense of urgency, then will embark on a flurry of travel that begins with trips on Thursday and Friday to the home states of six senators that Republican strategists have targeted as possible supporters of a Social Security overhaul. The president carried all five states in 2004.
The senators are Bill Nelson (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), who are all up for reelection; Max Baucus (Mont.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, who supported Bush's 2001 tax cut, along with Ben Nelson; and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), potential swing votes. Lincoln supported Bush's first tax cut.