Democrats eager to take Bush up on Social Security suggestion

Saturday, March 19, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Democrats are taking President Bush up on his suggestion to spend Congress' two-week recess talking to folks in the heartland about Social Security. Some plan to venture into Republican-held districts to do it.

Republicans, after raucous earlier town hall meetings, are more wary.

"The president has a lot of equity. He is a committed human being. However, this may be the toughest 'ask' he has sent over here in his four years for Republicans," Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said of Bush's Social Security proposal.

Wamp held several listening sessions in his eastern Tennessee district last month, and is taking a vacation with his family after plans for a trip to Iraq fell apart.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee are being dispatched to the districts of Republicans who have signaled concerns about Bush's plan to let younger workers divert some of the Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., for example has been asked to visit Colorado, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Republicans have urged their members to avoid the town hall meetings that largely turned into senior citizen gripe sessions during the last recess in February. Instead, Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky., will meet with students at Campbellsville University. "We're targeting younger folks this really will affect," said his spokesman, Mike Dodge.

Executive stand-ins

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will help fill the void while Republican lawmakers avoid the spotlight on the issue.

On Monday, Cheney will speak in the home district of Rep. Bill Thomas of California, the Republican chairman of the Ways and Means Committee the White House hopes will be at its side when lawmakers actually start negotiating a bill. And Bush will be stumping for his plan in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado on Monday and Tuesday.

The president will also visit Iowa next month to speak alongside the state's senior senator, Charles Grassley, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the panel charged by Republicans with putting together the first legislative draft.

Bush has purposely avoided offering his own bill, instead outlining broad principles that include the investment alternative as well as shoring up the financial underpinnings of the government retirement program. In 2018, Social Security will begin paying out more in benefits to baby boom retirees than it receives in taxes from existing workers, according to the program's trustees.

If Grassley or Thomas need the president to detail what is and isn't acceptable to him, he will do it, according to White House aides. If they decide he should move into the background so they can reach agreement with their respective members, he will do that, as well.

"There are different ways to achieve the same goal, so we are going to remain tactically flexible," Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, said Friday during an interview in his West Wing office.

Long-term, the White House is looking for the Senate to act first, then the House. GOP leaders and their members in the House are wary of acting first. They fear a repeat of what happened to House Democrats in 1993, when they approved a contentious BTU energy tax sought by President Clinton, only to have their fellow Democrats in the Senate abandon the measure.

Twelve years later, Republican discomfort with selling Bush's Social Security proposal has been evident in several other ways.

Ohio Rep. Deborah Pryce, who chairs the House Republican Conference, advised lawmakers to avoid town hall meetings and speak instead at more GOP-friendly forums, such as Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce meetings, or at local senior citizen centers.

Pryce was quoted as saying the town hall meetings in February disintegrated into "Rabble Rousing 101," in part encouraged by such liberal, anti-privatization groups as

On Thursday, Pryce's office sent an e-mail to the press secretaries for Republican House members, inviting them to a mock town hall during their lunch break.

"Have you been getting hard questions at your town hall meetings?" the e-mail asked. "Do you have a question you've been dying to ask?"

Democrats, meanwhile, have scheduled an array of meetings across the country. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota will meet with constituents Wednesday and New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine will do the same in his state Thursday.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California chuckled at Bush's suggestion this week that lawmakers go out and seek the public's suggestions.

"The president's saying, 'Put yourself in the spotlight,' and the Republican leadership is saying, 'Board up the town meetings, take yourself out of the spotlight, put conservative think-tank experts out there to explain this."'

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