Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who angered some fellow Republicans this week by suggesting President Bush's proposed Social Security revisions might have to wait a year, said yesterday that the legislation needs to pass this year.
"We need to do it this year -- not next year, but this year," Frist (R-Tenn.) said on the Senate floor, moments after the day's session began. He also restated his support for private accounts that would allow a portion of a younger worker's Social Security contributions to be invested in stocks and to follow the worker into retirement.
Frist had ruffled feathers at the White House and elsewhere by telling reporters Tuesday that it was unclear whether Congress would tackle Social Security revisions in "a week, a month, six months or a year." Acknowledging strong Democratic opposition to private accounts, he had added, "I wouldn't take that off the table yet."
Meanwhile yesterday, Bush warned that Democratic lawmakers may suffer politically if they continue to oppose his plan without offering alternatives. Americans are beginning to agree that Social Security needs revisions to safeguard its long-term stability, he said, adding: "In my judgment, ultimately, I think politicians need to be worried about not being a part of the solution."
Democratic senators, however, were drafting a letter to Bush last night saying that so long as private accounts are "on the table, we believe it will be impossible to establish the kind of cooperative, bipartisan process we need to truly address" the program's problems. An unequivocal rejection of private accounts, the letter said, "would eliminate a serious obstacle to the kind of bipartisan process that Democrats are seeking," but it did not signal what concessions, if any, Democrats might make in return. The letter was signed by 42 out of 44 Democrats, plus Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.).
Some Democrats chortled at Frist's revised comments yesterday. The party's senatorial campaign committee said in a statement that White House officials had taken the Senate leader "to the woodshed." Frist's staff said he wanted to clarify his position on Social Security.
White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove said in an interview aired last night on CNBC's "Kudlow & Company" that Bush is "winning the debate" on Social Security. "Absolutely, Social Security reform can be passed this year," Rove said. "I've talked to Bill Frist. He's a strong proponent of the president's reform agenda, strongly believes personal retirement accounts can be -- have got to be an integral part of the solution, and believes that we can move and move rapidly this year to bring about this reform."
A new CBS News-New York Times poll found that most Americans are uneasy about Bush's plans for Social Security and believe personal accounts are not a good idea. With Bush and his top aides about to launch a 60-day national campaign to promote the administration's plans, GOP leaders scrambled to put a better face on the situation.
"I think the reports on this going badly are highly exaggerated," House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said. "There's plenty of time and there are plenty of resources" to make the president's case.
Bush told reporters the national debate has just begun and that "I've got a lot more work to do." He said he will keep telling Americans that "the problem is, in 2018, the system starts losing money," because Social Security benefits will start outstripping receipts. Bush said he also must do a better job of reminding people 55 and older that their Social Security benefits would not change under his proposal.
Some Democratic allies are preparing to counter Bush's 60-day blitz. The AARP is planning TV commercials opposing private investment accounts. Americans United to Protect Social Security, a labor-linked coalition, is launching a campaign that will feature at least 60 Americans who are concerned about the president's plans.
Progress for America, which supports Bush, is planning local media appearances for economists and politicians who favor personal accounts.
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.