Social Security Enters Elections

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More than a year after Social Security reform faded from the political radar screen, the debate erupted anew yesterday, as Democrats seized on news that President Bush hopes to revive an unpopular proposal to make changes in the national retirement program.

In recent days, Bush has said Social Security remains one of the "big items" he wants to tackle next year and he continues to "believe that a worker, at his or her option, ought to be allowed to put some of their own money . . . in a private savings account, an account that they call their own."

The statement appeared to represent no substantive change for the White House, and it varied little from the president's previous remarks.

But with just two weeks to go until the Nov. 7 congressional elections, Democrats highlighted Bush's comments, seeing an opportunity to remind voters about a Republican proposal that polls have shown is highly unpopular with many voters.

"Just when you thought your Social Security was safe from privatization, George Bush is bringing back his plan to privatize Social Security and cut guaranteed benefits," declared a news release from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party's fundraising arm for Senate races.

Democratic strategists were gleeful about the chance to draw a sharp distinction between the parties on Social Security, an explosive issue among elderly voters. "I couldn't believe it. What an opening," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. "I think he had an out-of-body experience."

Some Republicans were equally perplexed by Bush's timing.

"I guess you could argue if it gets Iraq off the front page, it was probably a good thing at this point," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a top Republican strategist who opposed the president's Social Security plan. But a new White House push on the issue "is not going anywhere. This president never likes to back down. I think he's putting it on the table, but I don't think anybody's going to pick it up."

The administration is trying to mount a new, bipartisan effort to rein in the costs of Social Security, along with Medicare and Medicaid.

Though Bush's plan stalled in Congress last year, the new Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., has said he took the job in part to tackle the rising cost of government health-care and Social Security spending, which he has called "the biggest economic issue facing our country." And Bush regularly mentions his desire to take another stab at the issue.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto yesterday said that the president "is interested in addressing the long-term challenges our country faces, and he's not going to be shy about doing that."

Fratto was traveling with Bush in Florida, where last year's aborted attempt at Social Security reform has been an issue in competitive House races. In South Florida, where Bush attended a Republican National Committee fundraiser, Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) has touted his opposition to Bush's push for private accounts in a television ad.


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