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Overhaul a Tough Sell, GOP Lawmakers Find

Times Staff Writers

Discouraged by the feedback they received in meetings with constituents, Republican lawmakers returned to Congress this week convinced that it would take time to build support for President Bush’s still-evolving plan to overhaul Social Security.

Many lawmakers held town hall meetings to discuss Social Security during last week’s congressional recess, and many Republicans were pounded by skeptical questions about the president’s plan. Some said the experience drove home how much work remained to persuade people to support Bush’s proposal, which would allow younger workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts.

“This is going to be a long process,” said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees Social Security. “I don’t expect members to come back from recess and say: ‘No way we can do that.’ But I also don’t expect them to say: ‘This is going to be easy.’ ”

Some Republicans say they never expected the complex issue to move quickly through Congress. But some senior strategists have contended that Bush has only a small window of opportunity to get his initiative in motion.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in February that Bush had about three months to mobilize public opinion behind his plan.

“If we don’t see some grass-roots organizing and change of public opinion after 90 days, it’s going to discourage people in Congress from moving ahead,” Grassley told reporters in Iowa.

A senior Senate GOP aide said the initiative could be in trouble if it fails to pick up some steam after Congress returns from its next recess in early April. “After that recess, if things haven’t started to jell, I wouldn’t say it’s over, but you’ve got to start seeing some movement by the end of June,” the aide said.

Stuart Roy, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), said the feedback from town hall meetings last week would support a “go-slow approach” to handling the Social Security issue.

“It is a months-long, if not a years-long, process,” Roy said. Bush will continue his campaign-style appearances around the country this week to promote Social Security restructuring, with visits to New Jersey and Indiana. But some GOP leaders say the president also may need to step up his lobbying of congressional Republicans, perhaps even going to Capitol Hill.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) acknowledged that Bush’s allies faced resistance when discussing the issue with constituents. But the problem, he said, was a lack of understanding. “The headwind is confusion and concern, and they don’t know who to believe,” Ryan said. “It just requires more communication.”

He said Republicans would face political peril if they invested a lot of time and energy in the issue and could not deliver legislation. “People are expecting something to happen this year,” said Ryan, who has proposed his own plan to create private accounts. “For us to say there’s a problem [and] then walk away from it would be irresponsible in the eyes and minds of our constituents.”

Michael Tanner, an expert on Social Security at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he was encouraged by behind-the-scenes maneuvering -- even if the public face of the debate did not seem to go well for Bush.

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“There are lots of discussions, a lot of negotiating and people reaching out with different proposals,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been attempting to broker a compromise with Democrats, is drafting a bill that would create the private investment accounts and raise the $90,000 cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes. Graham also is exploring a formula change that likely would lead to retirees receiving a lower initial benefit, with protections for low-income workers.

Bush says the private accounts would allow younger workers to build a fatter retirement nest egg than the current system can offer, while at the same time giving workers a sense of “ownership” of their retirement savings. Opponents say Bush’s plan would force the government to borrow $1 trillion or more to replace the tax revenue diverted into the accounts, while doing nothing to fix the financing shortfall that Social Security will face as the baby boom generation retires. White House officials said there had been no change of strategy in response to last week’s congressional town hall meetings.

Bush has said repeatedly that the first step in the process of winning support for private investment accounts is to convince members of Congress, through their constituents, that the Social Security system is facing a severe funding squeeze. White House officials have said Bush believes it will take weeks or months to accomplish that objective.

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Some Republican strategists, fearing that no compromise will break the Democrats’ solid wall of opposition, are plotting strategies for defeating moderate Democrats such as Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida in the 2006 elections and replacing them with Republicans who want to overhaul Social Security.

“We’re going to get this in the next five years,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a leading backer of private accounts, said last month. “We’ll either get it now, or we’ll knock out the two Nelsons ... and come back and say: ‘Who wants to play again?’ ”

Times staff writer Warren Vieth contributed to this report.


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