Democrats Reviving Social Security Issue

By WILL LESTER
The Associated Press
Monday, October 2, 2006; 8:41 PM

WASHINGTON -- Social Security has drifted out of the national debate, but Democrats, eyeing the senior vote, are trying to revive the issue _ just in time for the midterm elections.

Democratic leaders are advising their party's congressional candidates to focus on what the Republicans might do to Social Security given the chance.

"The president hasn't given up yet, even though the American people resoundingly rejected his proposal for private accounts," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Politicians from both parties acknowledge Social Security is likely to face insolvency in future years as the population ages, although they don't agree on the solutions.

Overhauling the landmark New Deal program to aid seniors was President Bush's postelection goal in 2004. His proposal called for allowing workers under age 55 to divert some Social Security taxes into personal accounts in exchange for lower guaranteed benefits.

Democrats, labor and senior groups strongly opposed private accounts. And Republican unease about the program was enough to kill it, a major defeat for the president.

But a number of groups are working to keep the issue alive.

Social Security advocates are holding dozens of events around the country challenging Republicans to sign a pledge that they will not support efforts to create personal accounts.

Americans United, a labor-backed group formed to fight Social Security changes, plans to follow politicians who favor private accounts _ including GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania _ with campaign workers dressed as gorillas carrying the message, "Don't monkey with our SS."

Another group, "For Our Grandchildren," is sending out a competing pledge to candidates asking that all options be considered to save Social Security, said Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota.

"It's always been a reliable issue for the Democrats," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers. "The problem is that when the president was trying to sell it it was an issue, but it has receded so much."

Still, Democrats believe the phrase "Social Security" will be heard by voters 50 and over, despite the loud debate over terrorism, Iraq and the economy. These voters in 2002 made up almost half of the electorate, according to exit polls.

Senior voters have swung back and forth in recent elections, backing Republicans in 2004 and leaning Democratic in current AP-Ipsos polling.

"I don't want to see Social Security changed," said 64-year-old retiree Elaine Skelenger, a political independent from Milford, Pa. "It's something I've never forgotten about."

After the administration's Medicare prescription drug program failed to produce problems for Republicans, the Democrats view Social Security as a way to as away to energize seniors at the polls.

And Republicans have made clear they're not giving up on changing the program.

In June, Bush said in a speech that he remains determined to make changes in the Social Security system, as well as other federal programs like Medicare. "If we can't get it done this year, I'm going to try next year," he promised.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said in interviews that he wants to bring up Social Security again next year.

And Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., who heads a House Ways and Means panel dealing with Social Security, has promised to "come up with a Social Security plan that we can all embrace _ Republicans and Democrats."

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said Democrats are using their standard game plan: "When in trouble Democrats go back to scaring seniors about Social Security."

© 2006 The Associated Press