Monday, February 28, 2005

Bush plan fuels GOP insecurity

Bush plan fuels GOP insecurity
Some fear backlash over proposals to alter Social Security

By Jill Zuckman
Tribune national correspondent

February 26, 2005

PAYSON, Ariz. -- Rick Renzi, the Republican congressman from northern Arizona, is torn.

President Bush has urged Republicans to convince voters that his plan for personal retirement accounts will help save Social Security, but Renzi is not so sure. So rather than proselytize, Renzi has come to the Rim Country Chamber of Commerce offering coffee, cookies and a willing ear.

"I really want to understand your heart on this issue," he tells about 40 people crammed into the lobby on a weekday morning. "It's an issue I'm open to--I'm not set on."

For Renzi and a clutch of other House Republicans, Bush's decision to take on such a politically delicate subject could come with a cost: their re-election.

Midterm elections, such as those coming up in 2006, are a tough time for the party that controls the White House, usually resulting in a loss of congressional seats. In addition, Bush is in his second term, another factor that historically has hurt members of the president's party at the polls.

"With the possible exception of the war in Iraq, Social Security is likely to be the most salient issue of the cycle," said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. "And it just may be that President Bush is leading his party over a cliff."

As a relatively new congressman in a district with many traditional Democrats, including elderly voters and American Indians, Renzi is on a short list of lawmakers targeted by Democrats and courted by the White House.

He and 13 other vulnerable House Republicans were summoned to the White House recently to talk about the issue with Bush and his senior adviser Karl Rove.

"It's like being called to the principal's office," Renzi joked with the mostly older crowd at the Chamber of Commerce meeting Tuesday before proudly sprinkling his answers to their questions with tidbits from the meeting.

Both sides in the debate agree that as the Baby Boom generation retires, Social Security will become insolvent. How to shore up the New Deal-era retirement program is where Republicans and Democrats generally part ways. Bush would let people divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts, but critics say that would undermine the traditional retirement program.

Many other proposals have been floated for strengthening Social Security. Some want to increase payroll taxes, or raise the current $90,000 cap on income that is taxed for Social Security. Others would stop tying benefit increases to wages, which rise relatively quickly; instead, they would tie benefits to consumer prices, which rise more slowly.

Still others have suggested raising the retirement age--or even cutting back on Social Security benefits for those who are wealthier.

At Renzi's meeting, unlike other town hall sessions on Social Security that Republicans held around the country this week, there was no booing or shouting or threatening tirades. A volunteer from AARP took notes and politely reminded Renzi that "Social Security is a retirement plan and a family protection plan. It is not an investment plan."

A couple of hundred miles away, Renzi's colleague, Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), delivered a PowerPoint presentation Thursday night to a packed auditorium in Phoenix. As he laid out the long-term demographic problems for Social Security and expressed his support for private accounts, Shadegg encountered scattered heckling, boos and hisses.

Others back savings

But unlike Renzi, Shadegg's seat is secure. He was just re-elected with 80 percent of the vote after 10 years on Capitol Hill. Though he calls Social Security legislation "the biggest lift" of any issue he has encountered in Congress--meaning that getting it through will be hard to do--he believes voters will ultimately prove understanding.

"Nobody can get mad at you for saying, `We should deal with these facts,'" Shadegg said.

At the Chamber of Commerce, Renzi's constituents--several of whom voiced support for private accounts--peppered him with questions: Did he favor lifting the cap on the amount of income subject to the Social Security tax? Whatever happened to spending discipline in Washington? Could young people be trusted to invest their dollars wisely?

Although he told the AARP, the advocacy group for people 50 and older, that he opposed private accounts under Social Security in a 2004 questionnaire, the congressman clearly is intrigued by the idea. He calls the current system "a 1930s Model T," and he says he likes the idea of giving people control over their money.

"Those people who believe that there is no problem, I believe, are acting shortsighted and are acting politically," said Renzi, 46, an entrepreneur and father of 12 who is just beginning his second term.

Still, Renzi and others in Congress have drawn so many lines in the sand that it's hard to see how a bill could be written to satisfy a majority of Republicans, let alone any Democrats.

Line in the sand

For example, he won't vote for a measure that raises the retirement age and won't support cutting or recalculating benefits. He is leery of lifting the cap that limits Social Security taxes to the first $90,000 in income.

When Dick Morrison, a lumber company salesman, asked Renzi to vote against private accounts and consider increasing Social Security taxes instead, the congressman looked shocked. "Wow," he said, making it clear that raising taxes is a non-starter for him.

A recent Arizona State University poll found that 51 percent of state residents opposed private accounts, with 36 percent supporting the idea and the remainder holding no opinion.

"The older a person is, the more likely they are to oppose privatization of Social Security or messing with it," said pollster Bruce Merrill, noting that the high concentration of retirees in Arizona holds a disproportionate sway over their elected officials.

Indeed, Payson is a picturesque haven for retirees, and Renzi's rural district has more senior citizens per capita than either Phoenix or Tucson. It also is larger geographically than the state of Illinois and has the largest American Indian population of any congressional district in the nation.

Wes Gullett, a Republican strategist in Phoenix, is skeptical that voters truly are frightened by the prospect of change or by the possibility that anything ultimately will happen.

"There's not a lot of belief that Social Security is going to get tackled," he said.

For his part, Renzi is giving as many voters in his district the chance to talk to him about Social Security as he can. He's planning to hold at least 20 more coffees by the end of March.

And if a voter has a worry, then most likely Renzi shares it. For example, he's nervous that a market downturn could leave those who opt for private accounts in the lurch. And his brow furrows at the notion of borrowing a trillion or more dollars to create personal accounts and shore up the current system.

"I think you can see that I'm torn here," he tells a voter who asks his position on borrowing money to pay for the president's proposal. "It's kind of like I'm looking for permission."

If there is a constant refrain from Renzi, it's that he is "keeping his powder dry," something that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has admonished House members to do for weeks.

"Until we get the specifics of a plan together, you're going to see a lot of House Republicans taking the middle of the road," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

After an hour of talk as the rain let loose outside, Renzi said he believed that the people with the open minds are the voters. But he said Congress cannot move forward unless Republicans work with Senate Democrats, who have enough votes to sink any plan, to forge a compromise.

Whatever stand he ultimately takes, Renzi said he knows Democrats are "going to come after me."

Tide of criticism

One independent group already has flooded Renzi's district with phone calls, urging voters to tell him to vote against personal accounts. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has questioned why he told the AARP he does not support private accounts after telling the National Taxpayers Union two years earlier that he would vote for them.

"We're going to remind everyone," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic group. "You can't have it both ways on this one."

Renzi shrugs off the criticism as he continues to sort through the issue.

"I'll be OK," he insisted. "I'll be able to stand up and speak from my heart, which will carry me even in a tough election if [the bill is] sound and has content and merit to it and substance. If it's fluff and smoke and mirrors, it's not going to sell."