Getting the GOP Behind Bush on Social Security

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Republicans on Capitol Hill have lost no time translating their electoral success into rapid advances on some of their favorite legislative packages, including changes to the bankruptcy laws and curbs on lawsuits against corporations. They’re also looking at cutting Medicaid, and changing Senate rules to prevent Democrats from filibustering President Bush’s judicial nominees. Clearly, they think they have the Democrats on the run.

The election has certainly united against the Dems against Bush on some issues, but it has also raised profound questions about their party's direction. Worried that the Democrats are losing ground by appearing to simply say "no, no, no" to President Bush's agenda rather than offering their own, Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg are suggesting that the party should offer an alternative vision on Social Security to Bush's private accounts. Republicans were thrilled with the Greenberg-Carville memo, which they think perfectly illustrated their critique of the Democrats: "Even their own trusted consultants Greenberg and Carville are saying you're not going to anywhere by just saying no," said House Republican Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce of Ohio. Senate Democrats are also searching for pro-life candidates in some states, believing the abortion issue has hampered the party in previous races, including Kerry's.

On Social Security, the key focus of the President’s second-term domestic agenda, the White House has problems of its own. On the campaign trail, President Bush avoided getting specific on how he’d change Social Security, talking only in vague terms about an "ownership society" and his determination to grab hold of the "third rail of American politics." Showing voters a detailed plan on Social Security could have sent Bush back to Crawford, Texas permanently. But having avoided airing specific proposals during the election, whatever plans he now puts forward don’t carry much of a public mandate, and Republican members of Congress don't know if they can win reelection while supporting diverting money from Social Security to private accounts.

Will He Ever Get a Haircut?

Last week, Rep. Michael Oxley, a Republican from Ohio, came to the White House to hear another pep talk about Social Security, this one from President Bush himself. But he first he bumped into a much more popular person — at least in New England. "Seeing Johnny Damon in a suit was an interesting sight," he joked. And the World Champion Boston Red Sox weren't the only athletes on the Hill last week. Virginia Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R), Virgil Goode (R) and Jim Moran (D) were there as Shaquille O'Neal was sworn in as an honorary deputy U.S. marshal as part of his work with the Safe Surfin' Foundation, a group that works on protecting kids from meeting potential sexual predators online. Next week could also be star-studded: As part of a hearing on steroids, the House Government Reform Committee has invited baseball players Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as well as Commissioner Bud Selig. So far, only Canseco, who has a new book out fingering dozens of players as steroid users, has said he will come.

Didn’t We Just Have an Election?

After suggesting that Social Security reform might not happen this year, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist received calls from Bush administration officials and spent two days backtracking from his statement. But after taking heat for his remarks in Washington, Frist decided to get out of the kitchen, moving to colder but friendlier confines in New Hampshire. The doctor-turned legislator showed up for a speech to Manchester Republicans, the latest in his exploration of a presidential run. While not exactly lighting up the crowd, he's clearly learned some of the requirements to be a Republican presidential candidate. He endlessly quoted and praised Ronald Reagan. He declared that Republicans would "end the IRS as you know it" and "confirm judges who will faithfully interpret the law from the bench and not fabricate law from the bench." He noted that he had spent some time near New Hampshire while in school, but never mentioned the Ivy League institution (Harvard Medical School) that he attended. He also said he would support New Hampshire remaining the first primary in nation. (Iowa has a caucus)

But Frist couldn't escape his Washington responsibilities. A woman attending the dinner demanded to know how when he would invoke the "nuclear option" that would stop Democrats from filibustering judicial appointments. And when Frist returned, he found himself somewhat outflanked on Social Security. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican senator who is also weighing a 2008 run, had introduced the first Social Security plan in Congress this year. Hagel repeatedly noted in a press conference Tuesday that he was "first," and there's no doubt voters in Iowa will hear that too in coming years.

Who Can You Trust?

When Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called Alan Greenspan a "political hack" last week, it was another illustration that the Fed Chairman’s near-oracle status has fallen victim to the rising partisanship in Washington. His support of Social Security private accounts was only the latest move to anger Democrats. Last month, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said, "Mr. Greenspan lost his credibility when he endorsed the President's tax cuts." Republicans, not surprisingly, don't agree, and have been almost gleeful at Greenspan's endorsement of their plan for Social Security. "Nobody in government has more credibility than Greenspan," says Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley.

So, Is there Really a Trust Fund?

House Republicans admit that part of the problem in selling private accounts has been that many of their members don't exactly understand the details of Social Security. "We have to educate our own members and we haven't completely done that," says House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. With a two-week recess sending them back to their districts starting on March 21, House leaders are trying to make sure members fare better than they did a few weeks ago when many endured tough questioning in Social Security town hall meetings. Rather than holding town halls, many Republican members will hold "workshops," where the member is joined by a panel that might include a Social Security caseworker, an expert on retirement planning and a few workers eligible for private accounts if they became law. They're hoping this will inspire a more relaxed discussion, instead of subjecting Republican legislators to sharp questioning from members of the AARP, as well as liberal groupings such as House Republicans also plan to set up an intranet website for their members with guidelines on selling the social security plan (invoking the word "voluntary" before "personal accounts, for instance), answers to frequently asked questions, and one-page explanations of how the accounts work. In a meeting of House Republicans this week, members debated strategies to improve the town halls. Representative John Shadegg of Arizona, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said he would hold workshops where members could ask questions.