Social Security Drags on GOP
Five months into their efforts to reform Social Security, House Republicans continue to face discouraging poll results and no clear consensus on the timing, content or message strategy necessary to passing a bill.
Despite dozens of high-level meetings and strategy sessions on the topic, GOP leaders have not decided whether the House or Senate should pass a bill first, whether the House should press forward even if the Senate is unlikely to act and whether the White House should provide more specific guidance or step back and let Congress take the lead.
“There’s a lot of different opinions about what to do next,” said a senior House GOP leadership aide. “A lot of people have an idea about what to do, it’s just the big challenge right now is to get everybody pointed in the same direction.”
Underlying those questions is an increasingly negative public relations environment. The most recent worrisome Social Security news for the GOP came in the form of a new National Republican Congressional Committee poll on the subject conducted by Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group.
The NRCC has kept the findings of that survey secret from rank-and-file Members, showing them to only the top Republican leaders at a meeting last week but not allowing even them to keep copies of the results.
Sources familiar with the new poll said the numbers did not differ significantly from the most recent round of public surveys but that they did show the GOP losing ground since the last NRCC-commissioned survey.
While Republican lawmakers and aides still express outward confidence that they can get a Social Security bill done this year, some are now talking openly of the 2006 electoral implications of failing to do so.
“It could be that all we get out of this session is credit for raising it as an issue and a problem,” said Republican Conference Vice Chairman Jack Kingston (Ga.), emphasizing that he remains optimistic that reform will be accomplished.
Kingston also reiterated his belief that “we’ve won the first part” of the debate, meaning that Republicans have been successful in convincing the American public that Social Security’s long-term solvency is a crisis that needs to be addressed.
The problem for Republicans is that they have been declaring victory on that front since at least March, doing so before President Bush embarked on his 60-day Social Security tour and then again when the tour nominally ended in May.
While Bush and his fellow Republicans all over the capital are mulling what to do next on Social Security, House leaders are trying to solve their own specific puzzle within the GOP Conference: how to craft a bill broad enough to draw majority support without losing wary conservatives, many of whom have said they will not vote for a reform bill unless it includes private Social Security accounts.
The difficulty of that task means that GOP leaders will not rush forward with a bill until they see a path to victory.
“The Speaker believes that reforming Social Security is an extremely important matter and therefore wants to make sure that this is done right,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
The current hope among House Republicans is that Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) will repeat his past success with challenges like Medicare reform and the Foreign Sales Corporations bill by crafting a wide-ranging measure that includes enough sweeteners to secure 218 votes.
“On the FSC bill, no one had any reason to vote for that,” said Kingston, pointing out that by the time Thomas was done with the measure it was popular enough to pass easily.
But repeating that strategy carries risks, particularly on the rightward end of the ideological spectrum.
“Thomas will get a lot of latitude because of his success in the past, but I don’t think we’ll want to go down the road we went on Medicare,” said a senior GOP Republican leadership aide, referring to the 2003 prescription drug measure that passed narrowly after drawing some conservative opposition.
“What I don’t think we’re interested in doing is buying votes off by creating a new entitlement bill,” added the aide, predicting that with an overly ambitious bill, “no Democrats will vote for it and there won’t be enough Republicans if we lose the conservatives.”
The Senate’s pace on Social Security presents the House with another set of problems. Most House Republicans would prefer to move a bill first so they can set the terms of the debate before the more moderate Senate does, but House Members also don’t want to walk the plank on the issue and take a tough vote unless they are sure the bill has a legitimate chance of reaching Bush’s desk. Senate Republicans will meet with Bush at the White House this week to discuss strategy on Social Security and other issues (See story, page 3).
On the communications front, House Republican strategists are somewhat frustrated with the current impasse because they have no plan to sell yet, making it impossible to craft a message that might boost the party’s sagging poll numbers.
While the precise role that should be played by the Bush administration in moving the issue forward remains a subject of debate, some Capitol Hill Republicans are eager for more guidance.
“This is the president’s idea,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “What does the White House want us to do?”