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GOP Takes to Heartland With Social Security Plan

February 19, 2005|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in Congress, faced with the political reality that there is little grass-roots momentum behind President Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security, are planning to spread out across the country next week to try to build a constituency for change -- and to take a watchful measure of voters' response.

GOP leaders are encouraging rank-and-file members to hold town hall meetings in their home states and districts during next week's congressional recess, arming them with briefing books, PowerPoint presentations and a video of Bush making the case for major changes in Social Security.

But many Republicans will not be joining their leaders in promoting Bush's proposal. Some lawmakers will be trying to have more low-key "listening sessions" with their constituents to test the political waters. Others plan to focus on other issues and address Social Security only if constituents raise it.

"The situation is fluid, but it has the potential to blow up," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.). "I'm going to keep my mouth shut."

The president wants to allow workers under 55 to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. Bush has cast the accounts as part of a broader, and still-emerging, plan to shore up the finances of Social Security that might entail benefit cuts or tax increases, although he has not endorsed those options.

The town hall presentations are part of a coordinated political effort that involves the White House, the Republican National Committee and outside business groups, as well as congressional leaders.

The intensity of their combined focus is a measure of how concerned Republicans are about one of the biggest obstacles facing Bush: a public that has been largely lukewarm to or fearful of his approach to restructuring Social Security.

It is a problem that is getting worse, not better, according to a recent national survey. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that the share of people who supported private accounts had dropped from 46% to 40% in the weeks after Bush started barnstorming the country to promote the idea.

"This is a long process," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a top party leader who plans to hold two Social Security events a day in his home state next week. "We have a lot of education to do, both internally with our members and staff, as well as externally with the people of America."

Another problem facing Bush, pollsters have found, is that the people who oppose personal accounts -- mostly the elderly and those near retirement -- feel much more strongly about the issue than do younger people, who are more supportive of Bush's position. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 68% of those who called private accounts a good idea said they might change their minds, but only 39% of those who said it was a bad idea said they might change their minds.

"The people who would benefit [from overhauling Social Security] want it, but they are not passionate," said Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.).

The absence of a clamor for personal accounts stands in contrast to the grass-roots campaign that propelled prescription drug coverage under Medicare. On that issue, an intensive lobbying effort hammered lawmakers for years before Congress created a drug benefit in 2003.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who plans eight meetings with constituents next week on Social Security, compared his task to what he did as an insurance salesman: stimulating consumers' "itch" to buy a product they do not yet desire.

"One thing salesmen have to do is get the itch cycle going," said Kingston. "You've got to get out and sell it to people."

Democrats are planning a counteroffensive next week. More than 140 of the House's 203 Democrats are planning to hold town meetings on Social Security. Their leadership has armed them with pamphlets and talking points to make the case that the program's problems are not as dire as Bush says and that they can be fixed with more modest solutions.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), who has been known to buck his party leadership on issues like the war in Iraq, said this topic had united Democrats like no other in recent memory.

"It's the uniter, not the divider," he said.

The Republican efforts are being bolstered by business lobbyists and other conservative groups who back a Social Security overhaul. Representatives of those outside groups meet regularly with GOP leaders to share information and plot strategy. A coalition of business groups -- the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security -- began running ads Thursday in publications that circulate on Capitol Hill to promote a campaign it called "Generations Together."

"As Congress goes home for the recess, Generations Together goes to work across the nation to send the message that Social Security must be fixed now," the ad said.

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