In a sign of the political dangers surrounding President Bush’s plans for Social Security, a number of congressional Republicans said Thursday that their constituents had received anonymous, automated phone calls accusing the lawmakers of trying to damage the government retirement program by “privatizing” it.
House Republicans said the calls, which they labeled a “tele-scare campaign,” had been made in more than a dozen congressional districts from Connecticut to Florida.
An aide to Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.), whose West Florida district includes more Social Security recipients than any other House district, said more than 200 constituents had called her office to report receiving the calls. A spokesman for Rep. C. W. “Bill” Young (R-Fla.) said his office received about 400 calls Wednesday.
Many lawmakers are already jittery about Bush’s call for allowing workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into worker-owned investment accounts, which might be paired with cuts in promised Social Security benefits. The reported phone calls underscored the political risks of the idea. Although no one could identify the source of the calls, lawmakers interpreted them as an effort to scare voters into pressuring Congress to back away from Bush’s still-emerging proposal.
“This plan would cost taxpayers $2 trillion,” said the automated calls, according to a transcript provided by the office of Rep. Clay E. Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.). “It would also decrease future benefits to retirees by 47%.... Tell Congressman Shaw that we want real Social Security reform, not a risky Wall Street gamble. Call him.”
The caller then provided a toll-free number to reach the U.S. Capitol switchboard.
That number was held by the American Federation of Teachers, but a spokeswoman for the union denied Thursday that it was responsible for the phone campaign. She said the union had the toll-free number disconnected Thursday.
“We don’t know who appropriated our number, but this wasn’t us,” said spokeswoman Janet Bass. “The calls are pouring in, from what I understand.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans were outraged.
“They won’t even identify themselves,” Greg Crist, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference, said of the unknown backer of the phone campaign. “At the very least, they ought to fess up.” He said Republican lawmakers had been trying to “educate the public, educate seniors” about the financial problems facing Social Security.
Bush acknowledged the political risks of his plan Wednesday in announcing that he would travel the country soon to bring his proposal directly to the voters.
“Social Security has been an issue that has made people nervous,” Bush said during a White House news conference. “People felt like it was the third rail of American politics. That means if you touch it
The president today is expected to try to rally congressional Republicans behind his Social Security plan at a retreat in West Virginia.
Some lawmakers Thursday responded to the phone campaign by issuing statements saying that the calls had mischaracterized their position.
Shaw, a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which will write Social Security legislation, accused the anonymous sponsor of the campaign of using “scare tactics on senior citizens only to advance a political agenda.”
Brown-Waite is a prime example of how Bush’s proposal makes life difficult for some in his own party.
There are 250,771 Social Security beneficiaries in Brown-Waite’s district, according to December 2003 numbers posted by the government. A former state senator, Brown-Waite narrowly won her seat in 2002, ousting a Democratic incumbent by 2 percentage points. State Democrats have promised to target the district again next year.
Both parties view Florida as a central battleground in the Social Security debate. Republicans want to defeat Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2006, an effort that begins late next week, when the president is expected to visit Tampa on a campaign-style swing promoting his Social Security plan.
Bush’s visit could also offer political cover for anxious Republicans. Brown-Waite and Young represent districts in the Tampa media market.
Bush’s two-day swing is scheduled to begin the morning after his Wednesday State of the Union address, in which some Republicans hope he reveals details of his Social Security proposal. The trip is designed to apply pressure on moderate Democrats who represent states that the president won in 2004.
In addition to Florida, Bush is expected to visit Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana.
But the recorded calls demonstrate that Republican lawmakers are already feeling pressure.
Among others hearing from constituents in response to the automated calls was Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.). Simmons, however, has made skeptical comments about Bush’s proposal for worker-owned accounts, which has prompted criticism from some of his GOP colleagues.
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said that House Democrats had nothing to do with the phone calls.
AARP, the seniors’ lobby, also denied any involvement, as did the AFL-CIO.
A spokesman for Young said that some of the callers to the congressman’s office didn’t want to talk about Social Security but instead wanted the congressman to investigate why they were receiving calls after registering for the “do not call” list.