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Bush Team Is Going on the Offensive

Times Staff Writers

The Bush administration announced Wednesday a 60-day, 60-stop barnstorming tour to promote the president’s plan for overhauling Social Security, as Republican lawmakers and their allies bickered over how to win Democratic and public support for the president’s initiative without gutting it.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the committee that would write a Social Security bill, suggested Wednesday that it might be better to take private accounts -- the centerpiece of Bush’s plan -- off the table for the time being to open the door to talks with Democrats about a possible compromise on shoring up the finances of the retirement system.

Saying that private accounts were not the cure-all for solving the long-term financial problems facing Social Security, Grassley said: “Maybe we ought to focus on solvency and bring people to the table just over what do you do for the solvency.”

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow appeared to be open to alternatives to Bush’s proposal for private accounts. Asked if the administration would consider a plan that did not include the accounts, he told reporters: “Everything is on the table.”

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The comments came as Republicans sought a way to build momentum for Bush’s plan, which has failed to win an endorsement from any prominent Democratic lawmaker and is losing support in some public opinion surveys, despite weeks of public campaigning by the president.

Many Republican lawmakers who used last week’s recess to talk about Social Security with constituents reported hearing opposition or only tepid support for Bush’s plan.

In a possible boost for the president, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan urged Congress on Wednesday to move quickly to shore up Social Security’s likely long-term financing gap. That gap is expected because of the coming wave of baby boom retirees and is estimated to reach $3.7 trillion over 75 years.

“I fear that we may have already committed more physical resources to the baby boom generation in its retirement years than our economy has the capacity to deliver,” Greenspan told the House Budget Committee. “If existing promises need to be changed, those changes should be made sooner rather than later.”

Bush has also sought to build a sense of urgency around the need to restructure Social Security. Under his proposal, workers would be allowed to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private stock and bond accounts, which the president says would allow them to earn more in retirement than the current system can offer.

Bush says the accounts on their own would not address the future funding shortfall facing Social Security, but that they should be part of a broader discussion of fixes that might include benefit cuts.

Democrats and other critics say private accounts would force the government to borrow more than $1 trillion to replace the diverted tax money, while doing nothing to improve the system’s future shortfall. A number of Republican lawmakers fear that embracing Bush’s plan would spark a voter backlash, especially among senior citizens.

According to a survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the percentage of Americans who say they favor private accounts has tumbled to 46% from 54% in December and from 58% in September.

Opposition was higher among those who had heard a lot about Bush’s plan than among those who were less familiar with it. The survey of 1,502 adults was conducted Feb. 16-21, and the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll released late Wednesday, 51% of respondents said permitting workers to invest Social Security taxes in private accounts was a bad idea, up 1 percentage point from January. About 43% called it a good idea, down 2 percentage points. The poll of 1,111 adults was conducted from Thursday through Monday, and the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

They were the latest of four polls that have shown a decline in support for Bush’s plan.

In an attempt to sway opinion, Bush will travel at least one day a week to campaign for his plan until May 1, Snow said Wednesday. The Treasury secretary said he would hit the road for at least two days a week. Other administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, would participate in the tour, officials said.

“I’m going to travel this country a lot talking about the issue of Social Security,” Bush said during an appearance in Arnold, Md. “Every week, I’m going to be out talking about the problem, assuring seniors that nothing will change, and reminding young Americans that they need to write the Congress, the senators and the House of Representatives and demand action.”

As Republican officials and their allies sought ways to move the debate forward and bring aboard Democrats, the lack of progress also revived tensions among different factions in the party.

Although Grassley suggested a temporary halt in promoting private accounts, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) rejected any move to step back from private accounts. “Why would we do that?” DeLay asked. “What we ought to stop doing is negotiating with ourselves.”

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), the co-author of a leading restructuring bill that calls for private accounts. “If you exclude that, you’re not going to be able to implement a system that is sustainable in the long run.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said he might consider taking private accounts off the table to spur bipartisan negotiations, but only if Democrats offered a solution “instead of saying ‘no, no, no’ to everything that is out there.”

The back-and-forth in Congress reflected a broader debate among Republicans over the White House strategy for promoting its plan. One conservative advocacy group issued a pointed critique of the president’s sales pitch.

“One hates to admit it, but so far the Bush administration has made a hash of its campaign,” wrote Larry Hunter, chief economist of the Free Enterprise Fund, in a memo dated Tuesday.

Though Grassley has raised the prospect of recasting Bush’s plan so that workers divert less tax money into personal accounts, Hunter argued that Bush cannot succeed unless he makes the accounts larger.

The Social Security road show was announced by Snow, who said the 60-day, 60-stop blitz represented a significant expansion of the administration’s campaign to convince the public that the system was unsustainable and that private accounts should be part of the solution.

“The scope and the scale of this goes beyond anything we’ve done before,” Snow told reporters. “This is going to give real momentum, real priority, real scale to our efforts.... It’s bound to produce very positive results.”

Snow said he was launching the offensive with appearances today in Arkansas and Friday in Louisiana. Bush will hold talk-show-style events Friday in New Jersey and Indiana.

Democratic opponents are planning a counter-offensive.

Senate Democratic leaders said they would travel Friday and Saturday to four states, including Arizona and Pennsylvania, to pressure Republican senators who were supporting Bush’s Social Security plan to back down.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which would write any Social Security legislation, said Bush’s sales pitch was backfiring.

“If the president is going around the country saying that if you are older than 55, there will be no benefit cuts, what they are hearing back home is that if you are 55 or younger, you are guaranteed benefit cuts,” he said.

Times staff writers Joel Havemann and Janet Hook in Washington and Edwin Chen in Arnold, Md., contributed to this report.


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