GOP Claiming Big Momentum

Posted August 12, 2005 at 5:24pm

Basking in a series of legislative victories just before Congress broke for its August recess, Republicans are now claiming momentum for President Bush’s other agenda items, including his plan to overhaul the nation’s Social Security system.

These sources suggest that July’s successes show that Bush remains a formidable political figure who should not be underestimated for the remainder of the legislative year.

“I don’t know what the odds of getting a Social Security bill through are, but they are better than they were in June,” said Charlie Black, a Republican lobbyist with close ties to the White House. “It is going to cause [Congress] to take the issue more seriously and get engaged in it.”

In a flurry of activity at the end of last month, the Republican-led House and Senate passed a comprehensive energy bill that was four years in the making, as well as a transportation package and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

With those victories in the bag — and despite continued public wariness over the idea of allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their retirement savings in the stock market — Bush and the Republican majority in the House seem determined to move legislation on Social Security when Congress returns after Labor Day.

At a meeting with his economic advisers last week, Bush called Social Security a “liability.” He added: “Congress needs to understand the gravity of the situation. It’s time to fix the system.”

While Democrats and opponents of privatization reject the idea that the legislative results of late July have made the public more likely to accept wholesale changes in the retirement program, they are preparing for a potential battle nonetheless.

“This is a stubborn president who has been known not to give up an initiative just because it’s unpopular,” said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for Americans United to Protect Social Security, the leading group opposing Bush’s plan. “We expect a major push.”

With that in mind, AUPSS circulated a memo earlier this month that laid out plans to use the 70th anniversary of Social Security’s creation — Aug. 14 — as a jumping-off point for its efforts to defeat the bill.

“Many pundits believe that because we have succeeded in reducing the popularity of privatization to dismal levels that the proposal is dead,” the memo said. “Nothing could be further from the case.”

Polling does show, however, that Bush must cope with a public skeptical of his effort to reform the retirement program.

A CNN/Gallup/USA Today survey released late last month found that only 29 percent of those tested approve of “George W. Bush’s approach to addressing the Social Security system.” A whopping 62 percent disapprove.

Perhaps due to these daunting poll numbers, House Republicans have not yet settled on a single bill that would serve as a vehicle for restructuring Social Security, although legislation sponsored by Reps. Jim McCrery (R-La.), the chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, and Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) seems to be the favorite for now.

The McCrery-Shaw plan would use a portion of the Social Security surplus to fund individual retirement accounts, but it would not cut benefits or raise taxes — thereby not directly addressing the long-term solvency issues of the system.

“We are still figuring out what all will be in the package,” said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Dan Mattoon, a Republican lobbyist who is close to Hastert, said that if recent history is any guide, a plan to overhaul Social Security will be among the last votes of the first session of the 109th Congress.

“The toughest issues come last,” said Mattoon, noting that the vote to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare came in late November 2003.

Republicans also appear to be positioning themselves to claim victory in the event a bill passes the House but stalls in the Senate, which at this point appears the likely outcome.

“What will come out of the House will in some fashion deal with personal accounts, at least at the level of a beachhead,” predicted a Republican lobbyist.

Regardless of the bill’s fate in the Senate “the White House believes they win either way,” the lobbyist added.

Under that line of thinking, Republicans can campaign in 2006 on the fact that they attempted to address the issue but failed due to Democratic obstruction.

“There will be some vehicle that [Republican] leaders will be able to pass with White House backing that will affirmatively answer the question: Did we reform Social Security?” Mattoon said.