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Bush Gets Personal on Social Security

Times Staff Writer

The president invited the small group of Republican congressmen to his living room on the second floor of the White House -- not the formal offices he usually presides over -- to talk about Social Security. While his guests sipped soda and munched peanuts, he did something even more remarkable.

He listened to them. He took criticism from them. For the better part of an hour, President Bush -- who has been accused of taking a “my way or the highway” approach to Congress -- was all ears.

“He didn’t cut anybody off,” said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.). “He didn’t try to debate us. Sometimes he’s more argumentative.”

That at-home meeting in March was one of dozens that Bush has held over the last three months to coax Republicans to set aside their qualms about his drive to overhaul Social Security. The lobbying effort -- less visible than his high-profile 60-day campaign to promote his Social Security plan around the country -- has had Bush more personally and deeply engaged with lawmakers than at any other time in his presidency.

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That effort has brought more than 160 House and Senate Republicans to the White House in small groups, given many lawmakers face time with Bush aboard Air Force One and brought dozens to events where Bush has addressed their constituents on Social Security.

The lobbying drive has apparently done little to change minds and bump up the congressional vote count, but the White House says it never intended this stage of the campaign to be an arm-twisting enterprise.

Still, the fact that Bush has had to mount such a full-court press even within his own party is a measure of just how difficult a political task he faces -- and how much the dynamic between the White House and Congress has changed in his second term.

Though some Republicans in Congress have complained that Bush took them for granted in his first term, or ignored them unless they were rebelling against the party line, they can hardly make that charge now.

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“He’s out there and making sure he’s talking to all of us -- a lot -- and not just when ... we’re in the doghouse,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio).

At issue is Bush’s ambitious effort to restructure Social Security. He wants to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into individual investment accounts. In return, workers would probably be required to give up a portion of their traditional Social Security benefit.

Although the investment accounts were initially his principal focus, Bush has conceded that they alone would not solve the problem facing Social Security: Without changes, it will become insolvent.

But Democrats are opposed to the accounts funded by payroll taxes, and many Republicans fear tackling the politically sensitive issue without bipartisan support. As a result, Bush has had to get personally involved in the initiative to a degree unmatched in his first term, when he pushed issues that already enjoyed broad support within his party, such as tax cuts and expanding Medicare.

“It is a reflection of the difficulty the president is having in terms of convincing the American public and Congress,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.

Throughout his first term, Bush’s contact with members of Congress was more selective. The lawmakers he brought to the White House tended to be congressional leaders and senior power brokers, or recalcitrant Republicans who needed to be pressured to toe the party line. He never had the close relationships with members of Congress that his father, a former House member, enjoyed as president.

Republicans mostly went along. But sometimes they complained privately that Bush and his staff expected them to be rubber stamps, while the White House set key goals and strategies without consulting them.

“In the beginning, he really expected Congress to deliver,” said Thomas Mann, an expert on congressional affairs at the Brookings Institution. “But he had thinly veiled contempt for Congress and wasn’t much interested in engaging in elaborate courtship.”

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White House pressure on Republicans to support the 2001 tax cut was so intense that the Capitol chamber where Vice President Dick Cheney met to lobby senators came to be known as the “torture chamber.”

In a 2001 budget meeting still fresh in congressional memories, Bush antagonized a bipartisan group of senior members who were seeking additional funding for domestic security. Bush bluntly threatened a veto and, rather than respond to lawmakers’ arguments, abruptly left the meeting.

“I was flabbergasted and amazed,” said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). “We expected it was going to be a working meeting instead of a ‘my way or the highway’ meeting.”

Republicans again saw an adamant, table-pounding Bush when he tried to persuade lawmakers in 2003 to support full funding for rebuilding Iraq. “I’m not here to debate you,” Bush said at one meeting, interrupting one senator.

Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, disputed the view that Bush was unresponsive or imperious toward Congress in his first term. He said the fact that Bush never vetoed a bill was evidence that he was listening to Congress. But Duffy acknowledged that the president’s personal outreach to Republicans on Social Security was, for Bush, unprecedented in its scope.

“It is a blanket effort,” said Duffy. “It’s a clear reflection of the president’s commitment to getting things done. It shows how much the president understands that this is a difficult challenge.”

According to Duffy, about 132 House Republicans -- more than half the party’s caucus -- and 33 Senate Republicans have come to the White House for small group meetings with Bush on Social Security. Bush typically meets with them in the Cabinet Room or in the more informal setting of his residential quarters. And as Bush traveled the country as part of his 60-day campaign, more often than not he invited members of Congress to fly with him on Air Force One.

Few Democrats have gotten such attention. Two exceptions have been Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who were invited to meet with Bush one on one.

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Republicans who have been lobbied by Bush say he is uncommonly engaged in the issue and more passionate than they have seen him since he was pushing his signature education initiative in 2001.

“You could see him sitting on the edge of his chair,” said Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.).

Bush typically focuses his pitch on detailing the long-term strain on Social Security’s resources and argues that it should be addressed sooner rather than later. “If we are going to be able to address and fix this problem, people need to be educated about the scope of the problem,” one Republican quoted him saying.

Whereas some analysts and associates have portrayed Bush as a brusque manager impatient with policy details, lawmakers see a different picture when he discusses Social Security. He has become a master of actuarial arcana, such as the concept of a “bend point” -- a feature of the complex formula for calculating benefits.

And unlike most of his first-term initiatives such as tax cuts and the war in Iraq, on which Bush had a clear idea of where his policies were headed, lawmakers say he is pointedly open to their suggestions about how to handle Social Security as a policy and political matter.

“I’m not committed to any single fix,” he told one group.

After making his own case for the need to overhaul Social Security at the sessions, Bush typically goes around the table or room to hear from each person.

“It wasn’t just a pitch: ‘This is what I want; Go do it,’ ” said Rep. Michael Ferguson (R-N.J.). “He wanted to make sure he heard from everyone.”

The input from lawmakers, many of whom have confronted heavy opposition to Bush’s plan from constituents, has helped the White House fine-tune its message and retool its strategy. For example, after lawmakers told Bush last week that people did not understand that his proposed investment accounts would be voluntary, he made a point of underscoring that feature in a subsequent appearance.

The feedback is not all cheerleading. During the White House meeting in March, Rep. Boehlert told Bush bluntly that he was skeptical of his plans and believed that the future of Medicare and other retirement issues was equally important. “I think there’s a missed opportunity here,” Boehlert said he told Bush. “We need a new focus.”

And when Bush told that group he was passionate about Social Security, Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) responded that he had another passion: to liberalize Bush’s policies restricting stem cell research.

At another session, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), expressing a concern shared by many Republicans of late, urged Bush to provide more specifics about possible plans to restore the program to solvency, measures that are likely to require sacrifice and entail political risk. But Bush said he was not yet ready to lay out those details, because he was afraid it would cut short a wide-ranging discussion of options, according to one Republican in the meeting.

In some one-on-one sessions where lawmakers expect to be lobbied, Bush remains mum. LaTourette, who has been lukewarm on the individual investment accounts, expected the issue to come up when he helicoptered with Bush to a Social Security event in Ohio.

But Bush talked about baseball instead, naming almost the entire starting lineup for the Cleveland Indians for the 1954 World Series.

Invariably, when Bush talks to Republicans about Social Security, he sends an important political message: He’s not going to give up this fight any time soon.

“He gives you a lot of confidence he’s not going to leave you out on a limb,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who rode with Bush on Air Force One to the senator’s home state last week. “He’s going to stick with this issue.... Until the last day in office he’s going to keep doing this.”


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