Much preparation going into pitches on Social Security

Members of Congress on both sides of aisle head home to make sale

February 21, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Carefully coached and scripted, Republicans and Democrats from Congress will fan out across the country this week to talk to their constituents about overhauling Social Security.

Republicans will head home armed with advice on how to sell President Bush's proposal to create new private investment accounts - including which words to use, how to appeal to the young and the old, and suggested answers for likely questions.

Democrats will highlight a new Internet-based calculator to show constituents how much they might lose under Bush's proposal. They will also pack a "tool kit" of talking points and a script to use when inviting people to town-hall meetings.

These unusual levels of preparation underscore the stakes as Congress takes a weeklong Presidents Day recess to talk to constituents about Social Security, the lawmakers' first opportunity to do so since Bush made the issue the domestic centerpiece of his second term.

Until now Bush has had the field largely to himself. He has visited eight states pitching his proposal to allow Americans under 55 to divert some of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. Yet he knows he faces an uphill fight: "This idea is going nowhere if the Congress does not believe there is a problem," Bush said Thursday.

"This is sort of a starting point for our members," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Senate finance subcommittee on Social Security and a Bush ally.

"This is a long process. This is not a bill that we're going to take up in the next few weeks. We have a lot of education to do, both internally with our members and staff, as well as externally with the people of America."

Santorum, the third-ranking Senate Republican, gave his fellow GOP senators a CD with step-by-step advice for selling Bush's proposal. It includes a 30-page memo from Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican strategist, with detailed tips on how to make the sale.

Democrats have their own sales props.

"Democrats are opening a second front ... to show the American people that their benefits get cut under the Bush plan," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat.

"As Democrats head home, they will be armed with what is known as a killer ap," Schumer said, using computer jargon. "We have an easy-to-use calculator."

The calculator, available online at www.democrats.gov, allows users to compare how much they would receive after retiring, either from the current Social Security system or from a combination of Social Security and private accounts.

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