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Republicans Hit Hard Over Social Security Plan
NY Times
Republicans Are Chastened About Social Security Plan
Published: February 27, 2005

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 - After a bruising weeklong recess, Congressional Republicans will return to work on Monday chastened by public skepticism over President Bush's plan for private accounts in Social Security. One leading Republican, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that the opposition was better organized while another, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said bipartisan compromise was unlikely unless the president can change the public mood.

"It's a heavy lift," Mr. Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Friday, after a week spent crisscrossing his home state to play host to 17 town-hall-style meetings. He said the sessions ended "without my getting much of a consensus of where people are, except general confusion," and with the president still facing "a major job of educating people."

The story was much the same throughout the country, as Republicans - some already skittish over Mr. Bush's plan - spent the week trying to assuage nervous constituents. Instead of building support for Mr. Bush's proposal to allow younger workers to divert payroll taxes into private retirement accounts, some of the events turned into fractious gripe sessions and others did not go nearly as well as their hosts had hoped.

Those listening sessions also forced Republicans to confront another reality: opposition to the spending cuts outlined in Mr. Bush's 2006 budget. The $2.57 trillion budget will dominate the Congressional agenda for the next three weeks. But instead of fighting Democrats, Republicans - many of whom campaigned on slashing spending and cutting the federal deficit - are at odds with themselves over which programs to cut and which to spare.

Mr. Grassley, whose position as Senate finance chairman makes him the linchpin of any Social Security deal, said he still intended to negotiate a compromise between Democrats and Republicans. But he warned that lawmakers would not act unless there was pressure from voters, and he said voters would not put pressure on Congress unless the president persuaded them that private accounts are necessary.

"I think 90 percent of the lifting is with the president," he said. Mr. Grassley said, when asked if he was reaching out to Democrats, "That process is starting, but it's starting very slow because too many Republicans and Democrats - how would you say it? - don't have the confidence that this issue is ever going to come up."

Mr. Santorum complained that he was dogged all week by opponents of the White House plan who dominated news coverage. Mr. Santorum, who is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate leadership and chairman of the subcommittee on Social Security, was heckled by college students - the very audience the Bush administration was counting on - and peppered with questions from retirees.

"Clearly the other side is better organized," Mr. Santorum said. "They got people to all these events. They had seniors lined up to ask questions, they had staff people running up passing them notes."

Even so, Mr. Santorum described himself as encouraged at the level of interest; both he and Mr. Grassley said it was far too early to predict the outcome.

Senior Republican Congressional aides said the tone of the response was not unexpected, particularly given traditional nervousness among older Americans about potential changes in Social Security. They said that lawmakers would sort through the reactions when they gathered on Capitol Hill this week, and that the meetings back home would no doubt color how Republicans proceeded.

"It is going to be those personal experiences they had out on the road that will shape their views," said Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, speaking in his radio address on Saturday, declared himself pleased with how the recess week went.

"I am pleased with the progress of the national discussion on this issue, and I look forward to hearing everyone's ideas when the Congress returns," Mr. Bush said. He added, "Some in Washington want to deny that Social Security has a problem, but the American people know better and you have the power to determine the outcome of this debate."

AARP, the powerful retirees' organization that opposes private accounts financed by payroll taxes, has been tracking the meetings, and offered a different assessment.

"We've yet to find one where there was an enthusiastic reception," said John Rother, the group's policy director. "The most positive reception people are getting is lots of questions, and there's significant skepticism. This is proving to be a tough sell, and our polling suggests that the more people know, the harder the sell."

Mr. Grassley acknowledged that the Social Security plan stood in stark contrast to the last major piece of social welfare legislation that moved through his committee: a bill overhauling Medicare and creating a prescription drug benefit. "A good share of both parties felt that something needed to be done on Medicare," he said, "and so there was impetus in both parties to at least look at it." But on Social Security, he said, "there's too much of a feeling that it's better to wait a while before you do something."

Democrats, many of whom held their own constituent meetings, were practically giddy at the Republicans' dilemma.

"The reviews are in: Santorum's Social Security roadshow was a bust," crowed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Friday, in a headline that topped a list of excerpts from news accounts.

"They have run into a real hornet's nest," said Brendan Daly, spokesman for Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader. Mr. Daly said Democrats planned events for next week to keep the focus on Social Security.

The fallout from the recess might deepen the division between the parties on Capitol Hill. Democrats have insisted that they will be united in their opposition to the Bush plan, and on Friday, Senator Jon Corzine, the New Jersey Democrat who is running for governor of that state, said he expected that feeling to intensify.

"I can't imagine that people are going to come back more fearful that there is sort of a drumbeat of support for the private account concept," Mr. Corzine said. He held three constituent meetings devoted to Social Security, he said, including two featuring representatives of AARP.

"It is clearly something that seniors are rejecting in very, very large numbers," Mr. Corzine said, "and increasingly it feels to me that even folks moving down the age spectrum are turning against it."

At least one Republican, Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, said she would urge colleagues to "be really cautious about what we do." Ms. Capito, whose district includes a substantial population of older people and who has not taken a position on private accounts, said the response from constituents was "probably more negative than positive."

Like a number of other Republicans, Ms. Capito said she heard repeatedly from voters who were worried about Mr. Bush's budget, which would substantially cut or eliminate 150 federal programs.

Another Republican, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said he heard so many complaints about cutbacks for vocational training grants that he has decided to oppose Mr. Bush on that issue. "Some of the programs that the president has eliminated may not be possible," he said.

Congress has failed to adopt a budget resolution for two of the last three years; a failure to do so this year, when Mr. Bush has made fiscal restraint a high priority, would be an embarrassment to the White House and a defeat for the Republican leadership in Congress. The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Judd Gregg, said meeting the president's spending goals would be a challenge.

"Even though they may talk a fiscally conservative game, in the end, when they are asked to vote, they would rather not have to vote for something that will actually be real," he said.

Campaign Against AARP

By The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 - USA Next, a conservative group that is supporting President Bush's plan to revamp Social Security with a campaign criticizing AARP, will send a letter to as many as 500 conservative activists this week signaling future lines of attack, officials at USA Next said.

The group, which was criticized last week when it tested an advertisement linking AARP to support for same-sex marriage, said it planned to attack AARP on other positions. "What the liberals cannot hide is the shameful record of liberal activism AARP has compiled over the years," a draft of the letter says.

Officials at AARP say the group is nonpartisan and has never taken a position on same-sex marriage.

Carl Hulsecontributed reporting for this article.