Monday, February 07, 2005

Social Security plan a tough sell for GOP

Social Security plan a tough sell for GOP



WASHINGTON -- Winning the hearts and minds of the American people is only part of what President Bush must do in selling his ambitious plan to change Social Security. He also must convince skeptical GOP lawmakers the plan won't require them to pay a heavy political price.

"I'm going to be a pretty hard sell," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala.

Rogers is usually loyal to the White House. But he represents a district that is almost evenly split between Republican and Democratic voters, and he says the president's plan is "too risky" for his constituents.

His misgivings about Bush's plan to allow Americans to invest some of their wages in private accounts indicates how difficult it will be for Bush to sell the proposal. Most Democrats oppose Bush's approach. Democrats have been identified for decades as protectors of Social Security and are fighting to maintain that image.

What's more surprising is the lukewarm reaction GOP lawmakers showed to the president's proposal after hearing Bush speak Wednesday. Those lawmakers are driven by the concerns of their constituents -- and opposition to personal accounts from AARP, the hugely influential seniors lobbying group. Others are uncertain how Bush's plan would be financed.

Bush can't run for the White House again, but most lawmakers in Congress plan to run for re-election, many next year. Some are nervous about tampering with a system that Americans say is working well.

Under Bush's plan, beginning in 2009 workers could take some of the money they now pay in Social Security taxes and invest it in a personal stock-and-bond account. Future Social Security benefits would be cut by the amount of money invested in the accounts.

Bush took his plan on the road Thursday.

"A bunch of baby boomers who are going to live longer and have been promised greater benefits are fixing to retire," the president told a crowd in Fargo, N.D. "And so the system goes into the red ... in 2042, it's bust."

But there are doubters back in Washington, D.C.

"We need to know how we can fund it," said Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. "I'm going to wait and see how we balance the budget and fix Social Security before committing to his plan to create private accounts."

Even Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, one of the president's strongest supporters, backed away from a Wednesday statement in which he said, "I agree with the president's plan to encourage personal savings."

On Thursday, DeWine modified the statement to say, "I agree that we must do something to encourage personal savings." But he said he had not "determined whether ... private savings accounts should be a part of strengthening Social Security for our children and grandchildren."

Another Republican, Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan, said Social Security "has worked well for so long, I don't think it needs any wholesale change."

And Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, called Bush's plan politically dangerous. McCrery backs the idea of personal accounts but doesn't want to use Social Security payroll taxes to finance them.

He would prefer to use general government revenue.

"We should take the path that's less politically troublesome," he said.