- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

The White House insists it has “very good relations” with congressional leaders despite grumblings that the Bush administration is mishandling the sales job on Social Security reform.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked yesterday to react to a Robert Novak column that quoted a senior Republican senator as saying that “this is the worst administration at congressional relations that I have ever been associated with.”

Mr. McClellan disputed the characterization, insisting the administration and Republican leaders in Congress are working well together to move the public to embrace Social Security reform.

“This president has reached out throughout his first term and going into his second term to members of Congress and both sides of the aisle,” Mr. McClellan said.

Contacted late yesterday, the White House refused an opportunity to directly defend the performance of its congressional liaison, Candida Wolff, and the claim related in Mr. Novak’s column that several senior congressional Republicans never had heard of her.

Some congressional staffers have said privately that there is some anxiety about how the White House is handling Social Security reform. House members, who serve two-year terms, feel especially nervous about enacting major changes to the program beloved by seniors and fiercely defended by Democrats.

One staffer pointed to Medicare reform, pushed by the president, that added a prescription-drug benefit to the program. Democrats criticized Republicans for passing a bill they charged had inadequate coverage, and conservatives chafed at the $400 billion price tag. Once passed, the White House did not assist congressional Republicans from fighting off Democratic attacks.

Since the early days of Mr. Bush’s Social Security campaign, the White House has been surprised by high-profile Republicans who publicly have expressed reservations about the plan.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, characterized Mr. Bush’s proposal as a “dead horse” in Congress a day before Mr. Bush was inaugurated for a second term. Mr. Thomas, whose committee would write any reforms in the House, suggested alternative approaches because Democrats would never agree to the proposal.

Mr. Thomas has jumped on board the administration’s sales line, joining Vice President Dick Cheney at a town hall meeting in his home district to push private accounts last month.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, the man who would write any reform bill in the Senate, said during the Easter recess that he was “not hearing” any support for Mr. Bush’s plan in his state.

“I think it’s very difficult for me to say today that we’ll present a bill to the president,” he told the Associated Press March 25.

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