Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bush Pension Plan Faces a Brick Wall in the Senate

The New York Times
February 15, 2005

Bush Pension Plan Faces a Brick Wall in the Senate

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 - Nobody ever thought that President Bush's effort to overhaul Social Security would be easy. Even so, his campaign for private investment accounts has had a rocky ride in recent days.

Six weeks into this Congressional session, Mr. Bush faces an almost solid wall of Democratic opposition to the idea of diverting payroll taxes to private investment accounts. On the major legislative battles of his first term, notably tax cuts and Medicare, the president managed to prevail with a significant number of Democratic votes. But Democratic leaders say it has not been hard to maintain unity on Social Security, at least so far.

The near unified Democratic opposition is important for several reasons. As Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, often notes, nothing can pass the Senate without bipartisan support because of Senate rules that require 60 votes to break a filibuster. (The Republicans have 55.) But a wall of Democratic opposition can also stoke the fears of already anxious Republicans.

Many Republicans have concerns of their own about the Bush proposal, still sketchy on details, which has prompted numerous questions about its financing, its effect on the federal deficit and how it would affect traditional guaranteed benefits. Republicans also worry about the political fallout, meaning some will have little appetite for pushing this legislation through on a party-line vote, without the bipartisan cover so useful in election season. This is particularly true in the House, where lawmakers have felt in the past they were forced to take political risks the Senate was not.

Against this backdrop, the Democratic leaders, day in and day out, are trying to hold the line. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the secretary of the Democratic Conference, drove home her party's message at a news conference on Monday, saying Mr. Bush's private accounts were fiscally "reckless" and "off the table" in terms of any bipartisan deal.

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, said the politics of Social Security were quite different from the 2003 struggle over Medicare. Prescription drug coverage for the elderly, which led many Democrats to sign on with Mr. Bush, was an immensely popular cause with unrelenting support at the grass roots. In contrast, Mr. Durbin asserted, support for the concept of private accounts "was not that overwhelming," and as the details began to emerge, "it began to crumble."

Senator Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate leadership, countered: "It's very early in the game here. I don't think anyone was expecting after a few speeches by the president and a couple trips around the country that the other side would flock to support this." He added, "I see this as an external and internal process that will take some time."

Republicans point to polls showing that personal accounts are, in fact, viewed positively, particularly among younger Americans.

Still, Republican leaders have been arguing, publicly and privately, that Mr. Bush cannot prevail on Social Security until he builds more intense grass-roots backing for his ideas. In recent days, Republican leaders have sent up what amount to a series of political flares to the White House, basically making the case that, as the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, put it, "You can't jam change down the American people's throats."

Republican strategists say that until Democrats begin feeling the heat from a mobilized electorate, there is little incentive for them to join any bipartisan effort.

"If they perceive no political threat, they'll stay where they are," said a Republican strategist in the Senate, who asked for anonymity to speak more candidly. "It's a big issue. The president is banging on it, but the most important thing is for there to be a recognition of its political potency. And if that doesn't come, Democrats will feel quite comfortable staying where they are."

There have been a few cracks in the Democratic wall. Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who is up for re-election in two years, was the only Democratic senator who did not sign a letter protesting the president's plan because of its effect on the deficit. "I'm waiting for the president to detail his plan," Mr. Nelson said in an interview. "It's not appropriate for me to take a side for or against it because we don't know what it is yet."

Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware, indicated recently that he had not ruled out private accounts in Social Security, but only if they did not add to the deficit or result in any decrease in benefits.

In the House, Representative Allen Boyd, a Florida Democrat, is a co-sponsor of legislation that would also overhaul Social Security and create private accounts. There are also, less formally, bipartisan conversations occurring on the issue, particularly under the auspices of Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. The chemistry in the Senate is especially important because, increasingly, the Senate is expected to move first on the legislation.

Democrats are aware of the risks of their opposition; some Republicans are already portraying them as naysayers, ignoring a problem that most Americans want to deal with. "If they're smart, they'll see this as an untenable position for 2006, much less 2008," Mr. Santorum said.

Increasingly, Democrats are saying they are happy to work with the Republicans on shoring up Social Security over the long term, although they argue that private accounts only worsen the program's solvency. Democrats are arguing that a bipartisan commission, like the one headed by Alan Greenspan in the early 1980's, would be a good first step.

In the end, though, Democratic leaders say they are not afraid of being accused of obstructionism, a charge that was raised repeatedly against former Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader defeated last year. "We didn't buy the obstructionist argument to start with," Mr. Durbin said. "Once you buy that, you might as well fold your tent as a minority party."