Doubts rise over Social Security plan

Some in Congress ask whether the president is ready with alternative

March 02, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON--As President Bush goes back on the road to promote his Social Security plan, members of Congress, including some Republicans, acknowledged yesterday what public polls have begun to show -- that there is little support for Bush's approach to the retirement program -- and they raised questions about whether Bush has a "Plan B" for achieving his top domestic priority this year.

Democrats are demanding that Bush abandon his idea of allowing younger workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market, a proposal they have branded as "privatization" of the program. And some Republicans, fresh from a week at home with their constituents, said they were alarmed to discover the intensity of the opposition to the plan, and said Bush is facing an uphill battle that he may not be able to win this year.

`Well-organized' foes

"The opposition is very well-organized," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who declined to put a timeline on any Social Security legislation, saying it could take anywhere from weeks to a year.

Bush "will have to stay out there and lead on it, when a lot of political figures want to run and hide and when you have a lot of people who say, `There's no problem,' " Frist said.

White House officials and supporters of Bush's plan say it is far too early to call the president's proposal a failure. They argue that Bush is only in the first phase of a long effort to sway public opinion.

"The first stage in the process is making sure that the public and the Congress understand the true nature of the problem with Social Security," said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman. Bush "realizes there's not going to be action until members [of Congress] believe that there's a problem."

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Bush's point man on the issue, said Republicans "have to prepare the environment to make sure that there are at least some on both sides who believe it's in their interest to find a deal to fix this problem over the long term."

Slow process

But the process has gone more slowly than some of Bush's allies expected. While proponents of his plan call it premature to second-guess the president, they acknowledge that lawmakers whose support will be key to any compromise are too skittish to begin advancing one.

"The opposition was more organized, and I think that the public is more confused than people expected," said Michael Tanner, head of the Cato Institute's Project on Social Security Choice, which backs adding private accounts to the program. "This is still months away from being done, and the White House and its allies are just beginning to gear up their efforts."

Tanner said he believes that Bush has gained ground slightly since he began pushing for Social Security overhaul. Republicans are "still very nervous," he said, "but they at least all seem to be on the same page."

Democrats, for their part, are hardening their objections to Bush's proposal, launching their own Social Security roadshow in states around the country to stoke opposition. Lawmakers plan stops this week in New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Las Vegas to speak out against Bush's plan.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, has ordered party colleagues to refrain from introducing or signing on to any Social Security legislation until Bush unveils details of his plan, including how he proposes to shore up the program, which is headed for insolvency as early as 2042.

"If public opinion starts to turn toward, as the Republican term is, personal accounts -- it's privatization -- I would be the most surprised person in Washington," Reid said. "The American people are opposed to it today. They're going to be opposed to it three weeks from now."

Widespread anxiety

White House officials and Republican strategists say they are heartened by polls that show that a substantial percentage of Americans think Social Security is facing serious problems. But surveys conducted over the past two weeks also show widespread anxiety over Bush's plan and lukewarm support for his handling of the issue.

A Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll conducted Feb. 25-27 found that 35 percent approve of the way Bush is handling Social Security, down from 43 percent in a poll taken Feb. 4-6, while the proportion of those who disapprove has risen to 56 percent, from 48 percent.

"I don't think that we have made our case as strongly as I think we will," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. "We've got a lot of work to do -- everybody knows that."

Bush hoped that his cross-country barnstorming would spark a public groundswell in favor of his Social Security plan, forcing lawmakers to support it. Tougher choices about how to pay for such accounts -- which would do nothing to shore up the retirement program -- could come later, Republican strategists believed.

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