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AARP Surveys Haunt GOP

Concerned that the early details of President Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security run counter to talking points embraced by a slew of House Republicans in recent elections, GOP strategists are warning that the same message that helped elect Members in the past could lead to their defeat in 2006.

At issue is whether establishing personal accounts allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market — the central plank of the Bush plan — amounts to privatizing the system.

A look at AARP questionnaires filled out by targeted Republican candidates in 2004 reveals, by and large, a striking sameness of response that centers on four basic pillars: no benefit cuts for current or near retirees, no increase in payroll taxes, no raising of the retirement age and no privatization of the system. Those principles were based on a Social Security research project funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2002 cycle.

Bush has yet to completely lay out his plan for the reform of Social Security but has said he will consider a number of options to make up the estimated $2 trillion in transition costs, including raising the retirement age.

“It starts to create an issue for the White House,” said a Republican lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Even within their own party it’s a bit more uphill than if the NRCC and Republicans in general had not been so scared on this issue.”

Carl Forti, communications director at the NRCC, insisted that nothing in the current Bush plan runs afoul of the advice handed out by the committee on the issue during the past several cycles.

“The tenets were crafted with the input of the NRCC, the White House and everyone involved in this debate and were built to ensure maximum flexibility for those candidates who chose to abide by them,” Forti said.

Of the targeted Republicans in the past two cycles, only Reps. Jon Porter (Nev.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.) formally opposed creating private accounts within Social Security in the AARP surveys.

Newly elected Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.) was the only Member in a targeted race to formally support the creation of private accounts. Most GOP candidates did not check either the “supports” or “opposes” box, although nearly every candidate did outline their basic principles in a written response.

Adam Mayberry, a spokesman for Porter, said that privatization is “defined as some private entity coming in and running Social Security,” not the establishment of personal accounts within the framework of the existing system, which Bush has proposed.

But, Porter filled out an AARP questionnaire last cycle asserting he opposed the creation of private individual accounts, which the organization defines as any investment of funds in the stock market regardless of who manages the money.

“‘Personal control’ sounds appealing,” according to the group’s position as outlined in the questionnaire, “but substituting private individual accounts, even for part of Social Security, drains money from Social Security, which means less money to pay guaranteed benefits.”

While the fight over personalization versus privatization rages on, some Republicans see other potential proposals on Social Security reform as complicating factors for vulnerable GOPers.

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