The Clinton administration and congressional allies, worried that Republicans are gaining traction on the traditionally Democratic issue of Social Security, mounted a furious attack yesterday, accusing GOP leaders of distorting the record and breaking their vow to soften their rhetoric.
A month-long, $445,000 National Republican Congressional Committee ad campaign portraying the Democrats as shadowy raiders of the Social Security surplus and a Republican news release issued Wednesday suggesting that the Clinton administration has treated the retirement system like a credit card touched off the uproar.
"It's kind of ironic that they have picked this issue to try to demagogue on, because this is the party that fought the creation of Social Security and Medicare," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "These folks . . . wanted to get rid of these programs since they began."
Several key congressional Democrats acknowledged yesterday that they were concerned about the Republicans' relentless attacks on the subject of Social Security. "The concern is if you repeat a big lie often enough, people may begin to believe it," said Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), a House Democratic leader.
Just two days after the two sides met at the White House and pledged a cooperative, nonconfrontational effort to complete work on the remaining spending bills, bipartisan comity seemed to evaporate.
White House officials and Democratic leaders warned that the GOP ad campaign and attacks this week by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.), the Republican point man on spending issues, were jeopardizing prospects for a final agreement. Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob "Jack" Lew complained to reporters that DeLay's attack was "worse than a political stunt" because "it bears no relationship to reality."
Republicans said the Democrats were overreacting and suggested that they may be looking for a way to renege on their agreement to complete work on the remaining spending bills without dipping into the Social Security surplus. They noted that Vice President Gore, who attended the White House meeting, chose to "opt out" of the pledge to avoid partisan sniping because of his campaign commitments and has criticized the GOP.
During a GOP "protect Social Security" rally at the Capitol yesterday afternoon, DeLay declared that Democrats were more interested in trying to raise taxes than cut spending and that "it should come as no surprise that they still have plans to raid Social Security."
The bitter partisan exchanges provided a troubling backdrop to a day on which administration and congressional negotiators failed to meet and the House, for the second consecutive day, passed a final version of a spending bill that the president has vowed to veto.
By a vote of 225 to 200, the House approved a $14.5 billion Interior spending bill for federal land and cultural programs. The measure adds back hundreds of millions of dollars to earlier versions and even restores an urban parks program the Republicans killed in 1995. But the White House said the measure, which the Senate later approved by voice vote, contains provisions for mining, ranching and oil interests that would harm the environment, and Gephardt urged Democrats to vote against it.
In an interview, DeLay charged that House Democrats were working against the best interests of their constituents even as Senate Democrats were adopting identical spending bills. "It's the House Democratic leadership that has really the strangest strategy of making these members walk the plank on these projects," DeLay said. "They're making their members vote against their own interests."
For example, he noted that Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) opposed the Interior bill despite the fact that it includes the purchase of land in his home state. "That's just unbelievable," DeLay said.
With the new fiscal year already three weeks old, Clinton so far has signed only six of the 13 spending bills and has vetoed two. He has threatened to veto many of the remaining bills, including a huge $317 billion labor-health-education bill. He signed an interim measure that funds the government at current levels through Oct. 29.
For decades, Democrats have used their defense of Social Security as a powerful political weapon against the Republicans, and polls have shown that voters trust Democrats far more than the GOP to protect the retirement system.
But in challenging the White House over spending this year, Republicans have sought to steal some of the Democrats' thunder on Social Security by repeatedly pledging not to use any of the Social Security surplus to finance spending while suggesting that the Democrats want to do just that.
Democrats say this is a gross distortion and that, based on recent Congressional Budget Office analyses, there is no assurance that the Republican spending plans won't end up dipping into the Social Security surplus.
Democrats are particularly sensitive to the NRCC attack ads on Social Security, which show threatening criminals and have an announcer declaring, "Imagine a world where there is no punishment for committing a crime," before saying that the Democrats' budget plans "could raid Social Security and spend our retirement money on more big government programs."
Rep. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) is among the Democrats who have been targeted by the GOP ad campaign. North Dakota Democrats have aired ads recently seeking to rebut the GOP and defend Pomeroy's record on Social Security.
"People are convinced we cannot afford to let these ads go unanswered," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).