Thursday, October 26, 2006

Social Security Enters Elections; Bush Remarks Please Democrats, Perplex Republicans
Social Security Enters Elections
Bush Remarks Please Democrats, Perplex Republicans
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer

More than a year after Social Security reform faded from the political radar screen, the debate erupted anew yesterday, as Democrats seized on news that President Bush hopes to revive an unpopular proposal to make changes in the national retirement program.

In recent days, Bush has said Social Security remains one of the "big items" he wants to tackle next year and he continues to "believe that a worker, at his or her option, ought to be allowed to put some of their own money . . . in a private savings account, an account that they call their own."

The statement appeared to represent no substantive change for the White House, and it varied little from the president's previous remarks.

But with just two weeks to go until the Nov. 7 congressional elections, Democrats highlighted Bush's comments, seeing an opportunity to remind voters about a Republican proposal that polls have shown is highly unpopular with many voters.

"Just when you thought your Social Security was safe from privatization, George Bush is bringing back his plan to privatize Social Security and cut guaranteed benefits," declared a news release from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee

, the party's fundraising arm for Senate races.

Democratic strategists were gleeful about the chance to draw a sharp distinction between the parties on Social Security, an explosive issue among elderly voters. "I couldn't believe it. What an opening," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. "I think he had an out-of-body experience."

Some Republicans were equally perplexed by Bush's timing.

"I guess you could argue if it gets Iraq off the front page, it was probably a good thing at this point," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a top Republican strategist who opposed the president's Social Security plan. But a new White House push on the issue "is not going anywhere. This president never likes to back down. I think he's putting it on the table, but I don't think anybody's going to pick it up."

The administration is trying to mount a new, bipartisan effort to rein in the costs of Social Security, along with Medicare and Medicaid.

Though Bush's plan stalled in Congress last year, the new Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., has said he took the job in part to tackle the rising cost of government health-care and Social Security spending, which he has called "the biggest economic issue facing our country." And Bush regularly mentions his desire to take another stab at the issue.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto yesterday said that the president "is interested in addressing the long-term challenges our country faces, and he's not going to be shy about doing that."

Fratto was traveling with Bush in Florida, where last year's aborted attempt at Social Security reform has been an issue in competitive House races. In South Florida, where Bush attended a Republican National Committee fundraiser, Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) has touted his opposition to Bush's push for private accounts in a television ad.

"I represent the state of Florida, not a political party," Shaw says in the ad. The 13-term incumbent is locked in a tight race with Democratic state senator Ron Klein.

Republicans elsewhere have also scrambled to distance themselves from the president on the issue. In Ohio, Rep. Deborah Pryce and Sen. Mike DeWine have struggled, under attack, to explain their positions on the president's plan.

DeWine said he opposes using tax dollars for private accounts, according to a candidate survey by AARP, the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

And Pryce said in a debate last month that while she still agrees with the concept, she has heeded voter demands to drop the issue, according to news reports. Her campaign has called her strong backing of the Bush plan "ancient history."

AARP yesterday released candidate surveys from 35 competitive House races and 10 competitive Senate races in which Republican candidates overwhelmingly refused to take a definitive stand on private accounts -- or opposed them outright.

One of the few exceptions was Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), chairman of a Senate subcommittee on Social Security and an outspoken advocate of the president's plan. He is trailing Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr. in recent polls.

Santorum told AARP that he continues to support private accounts, so long as they are voluntary. On the campaign trail, he has lashed out at Casey -- and Democrats in general -- for failing to offer their own ideas for tackling the Social Security problem.

"He won't give you an -- he won't give you an answer on Social Security. He won't give you an answer on anything to make any changes," Santorum said in a television debate last month. "My question to Mr. Casey is: If you're not for personal retirement accounts, which he says he's not, how much are you going to raise their taxes? Or how much are you going to cut benefits to fix the Social Security problem?"