White House, Democrats Meet, Quietly

Posted April 20, 2005 at 6:46pm

Although Republicans have been publicly hammering Democrats for refusing to “come to the table” on a plan to overhaul Social Security, many moderate Senate Democrats have been meeting privately with White House officials to talk about what they may or may not be able to support.

However, the White House’s full-court press to win support from centrist Senate Democrats for its controversial Social Security plan continues to fall short, much to the consternation of Republicans in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill.

“There isn’t anything to be on board with — there’s no plan,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who, along with other Democratic moderates, will not rule out the possibility that they could support the White House’s efforts at some later date.

Indeed, a handful of Democratic centrists, including Nelson, have said they are open to proposals to create personal retirement accounts under Social Security, but they say the White House hasn’t come up with a plan they can support yet.

“I have not yet heard an idea that I can vote for,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who noted that he met with Bush administration officials to discuss Social Security two weeks ago. “I’m someone who is open and listening, but not someone who is supportive at this point.”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) agreed. “There’s a kernel of a good idea in individual accounts, but it’s not a good idea when it’s financed with deep benefit cuts and massive debt,” he said. “I think the president’s plan has serious flaws.”

Conrad said he has had numerous conversations with Bush officials, including Treasury Secretary John Snow and Allan Hubbard, the president’s chief economic adviser.

Pryor and Conrad, along with Nelson, are seen by the White House as the three Democratic Senators most likely to be persuaded to back President Bush’s proposal to allow workers to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts.

Though he refused to confirm which Members the Bush administration is targeting, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said conversations that administration officials have had with select Democrats “have been very positive discussions and active discussions, which we view as very encouraging.”

Duffy added that the Democrats who have come to White House “want to keep the lines of communication open so we can solve the problem now.”

However, many centrist Democrats criticized the Bush administration for talking in generalities and failing to present a detailed plan to Congress.

“They were still at a conceptual stage. It’s not like they had a real firm proposal,” said Pryor. “I told them, ‘You all need to come to Congress with a proposal, even if you have to use a back channel.’”

Nelson reiterated that notion, saying the White House has repeatedly floated pieces of Social Security plans for his review. But Nelson said that none he’s seen has both created private accounts and ensured the financial stability of regular Social Security benefits in the long term.

“If you don’t see the whole thing at a glance, then you’re making a pie a piece at a time,” Nelson said. “At the end of the day, they’ve got to have the whole thing.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appeared to agree with Pryor and Nelson that the way for the White House to get Democrats to begin negotiating would be to lay out a detailed plan.

“Two things have to happen. The president has to be specific about an overall plan that involves solvency … and we have to have a [Congressional] requirement that we vote,” said Graham. “Those two things combined will create some momentum to get Democrats” to the table.

Graham himself has been holding meetings with Democrats, but so far none has agreed to sign on to a plan that includes private accounts. The president, Graham said, “has done a good job of defining the problem, but he’s going to have to go beyond the accounts.”

Meanwhile, other centrist Democrats complained the White House has been too concerned with creating outside political pressure and not concerned enough with actually trying to engage Democrats in negotiations.

“The administration itself made four visits to our state before they even called me. I’m not trying to be ugly, but what kind of overture is that?” asked Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who said she went to the White House last week to talk to officials about Social Security.

Though Lincoln agreed to listen to the White House, she added that the president’s desire to create personal accounts is “a nonstarter” for her. She also complained, as did Pryor, that the president has not spent enough time explaining how his plan might affect the millions of Americans who receive Social Security benefits before retirement because they are either disabled or widowed.

“The fact that it just kind of gets glossed over and put to the side is also a non-starter,” Lincoln said.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), indicated that the Democratic centrists’ resistance to the White House’s approach is less about party loyalty and more about the substance of the president’s proposal and the campaign-style tactics he has used to push the issue.

“The irony is that some of the people they had hoped to court have been turned off by the administration’s heavy-handed tactics,” Manley said. “The fact is that there is no support within the Democratic Caucus for anything which causes deep cuts in benefits and adds significantly to the debt.”

Outlines of the president’s plan show that Social Security beneficiaries who choose to put some money in private accounts would receive a lower regular Social Security check under the assumption that the private account would make up for the short fall. Additionally, administration officials have suggested the plan could be financed through deficit spending.

But Republicans remain optimistic that at the very least centrist Democrats will swing their way on Social Security.

“I think many Democrats want to come forward, but they just don’t want to be the first Democrat to come forward,” posited one Senate Republican leadership aide. “We’re planning [for legislative action] with the hope that Democrats will come forward soon.”

But the Senate Democrats’ point man on Social Security — Max Baucus (Mont.), himself a centrist — said Republicans should not hold their breath for a breakthrough with any one Democrat.

“Not with privatization on the table,” Baucus said. “They just don’t understand that privatization won’t fly.”