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Bush Gets Personal on Social Security

April 25, 2005|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The president invited the small group of Republican congressmen to his living room on the second floor of the White House -- not the formal offices he usually presides over -- to talk about Social Security. While his guests sipped soda and munched peanuts, he did something even more remarkable.

He listened to them. He took criticism from them. For the better part of an hour, President Bush -- who has been accused of taking a "my way or the highway" approach to Congress -- was all ears.

"He didn't cut anybody off," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.). "He didn't try to debate us. Sometimes he's more argumentative."

That at-home meeting in March was one of dozens that Bush has held over the last three months to coax Republicans to set aside their qualms about his drive to overhaul Social Security. The lobbying effort -- less visible than his high-profile 60-day campaign to promote his Social Security plan around the country -- has had Bush more personally and deeply engaged with lawmakers than at any other time in his presidency.

That effort has brought more than 160 House and Senate Republicans to the White House in small groups, given many lawmakers face time with Bush aboard Air Force One and brought dozens to events where Bush has addressed their constituents on Social Security.

The lobbying drive has apparently done little to change minds and bump up the congressional vote count, but the White House says it never intended this stage of the campaign to be an arm-twisting enterprise.

Still, the fact that Bush has had to mount such a full-court press even within his own party is a measure of just how difficult a political task he faces -- and how much the dynamic between the White House and Congress has changed in his second term.

Though some Republicans in Congress have complained that Bush took them for granted in his first term, or ignored them unless they were rebelling against the party line, they can hardly make that charge now.

"He's out there and making sure he's talking to all of us -- a lot -- and not just when ... we're in the doghouse," said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio).

At issue is Bush's ambitious effort to restructure Social Security. He wants to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into individual investment accounts. In return, workers would probably be required to give up a portion of their traditional Social Security benefit.

Although the investment accounts were initially his principal focus, Bush has conceded that they alone would not solve the problem facing Social Security: Without changes, it will become insolvent.

But Democrats are opposed to the accounts funded by payroll taxes, and many Republicans fear tackling the politically sensitive issue without bipartisan support. As a result, Bush has had to get personally involved in the initiative to a degree unmatched in his first term, when he pushed issues that already enjoyed broad support within his party, such as tax cuts and expanding Medicare.

"It is a reflection of the difficulty the president is having in terms of convincing the American public and Congress," said a senior Senate Republican aide.

Throughout his first term, Bush's contact with members of Congress was more selective. The lawmakers he brought to the White House tended to be congressional leaders and senior power brokers, or recalcitrant Republicans who needed to be pressured to toe the party line. He never had the close relationships with members of Congress that his father, a former House member, enjoyed as president.

Republicans mostly went along. But sometimes they complained privately that Bush and his staff expected them to be rubber stamps, while the White House set key goals and strategies without consulting them.

"In the beginning, he really expected Congress to deliver," said Thomas Mann, an expert on congressional affairs at the Brookings Institution. "But he had thinly veiled contempt for Congress and wasn't much interested in engaging in elaborate courtship."

White House pressure on Republicans to support the 2001 tax cut was so intense that the Capitol chamber where Vice President Dick Cheney met to lobby senators came to be known as the "torture chamber."

In a 2001 budget meeting still fresh in congressional memories, Bush antagonized a bipartisan group of senior members who were seeking additional funding for domestic security. Bush bluntly threatened a veto and, rather than respond to lawmakers' arguments, abruptly left the meeting.

"I was flabbergasted and amazed," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "We expected it was going to be a working meeting instead of a 'my way or the highway' meeting."

Republicans again saw an adamant, table-pounding Bush when he tried to persuade lawmakers in 2003 to support full funding for rebuilding Iraq. "I'm not here to debate you," Bush said at one meeting, interrupting one senator.

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