Monday, February 07, 2005

Lobbying war hits airwaves

Lobbying war hits airwaves
By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Powerful combatants in the fight over President Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security have launched a lobbying war that's turning into the biggest since the battle over health care in 1994.

Just days after Bush unveiled part of his proposal, tens of millions of dollars are being raised and spent on ads, including some that begin Monday. The battle pits business and conservative groups against seniors, organized labor and liberals.

"People are going to be surprised at the level of organization on both sides," says Derrick Max, director of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, a business group aligned with the White House.

Bush wants to give workers born in 1950 or later the option of diverting one-third of the payroll taxes they and their employers pay to private investment accounts. He says that would give them the chance to earn more money than guaranteed Social Security benefits provide. Opponents say a retiree who chose the account would get a smaller government check and investments might not make up for it.

Among those backing Bush, in addition to the business group:

•Progress for America, which calls itself a "conservative truth squad," starts running its second ad today on CNN and Fox News Channel. Brian McCabe, its president, says its budget is $20 million.

•Club for Growth, which promotes "free market" conservative candidates and boasts 29,000 members, plans to spend more than $10 million. It's airing ads in Michigan, New York and Rhode Island urging voters to contact undecided Republican lawmakers.

•For Our Grandchildren, financed largely by window and door manufacturer Richard Wendt of Klamath Falls, Ore., employs a handful of lobbyists.

Groups opposing Bush include:

•AARP, the over-50 group with 35 million members, plans to use its four publications and conduct forums, letter-writing campaigns and meetings with lawmakers. It's spending $5 million now on ads.

•Campaign for America's Future, a liberal group whose mission is to "empower workers," hopes to raise $30 million. Roger Hickey, its co-director, says the group drew thousands of people to rallies during Bush's trip last week to pressure key Democrats in five states.

•, another liberal group, is running TV and print ads warning that Bush's plan will lead to "the working retirement." It plans to spend at least $1 million.

The lobbying effort resembles the fight over President Clinton's proposed overhaul of the nation's health care delivery system a decade ago. Nearly $100 million was spent by outside groups; the plan was ultimately defeated.

"It's an epic battle," Hickey says. "If Bush succeeds here, he's changed the whole paradigm of what government is out to do."