Conservatives in and out of Congress say President Bush has been taking bad advice on Social Security, hurting his chance to win private investment accounts for younger workers.
Mr. Bush has refused to rule out measures that would contradict his campaign promises on Social Security, putting himself in what conservatives say is a weak negotiating position with Democrats.
"The president would do well to put markers down as to what we are going to do and what we are not going to do on Social Security taxes and benefits," said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican.
A senior Republican senator said, "The message coming out of the White House is that we'll fix Social Security by raising your taxes and cutting your retirement benefits and, to get something passed, we'll forget about the personal retirement accounts we promised."
The senator said that is like telling voters, "Never vote for Republicans again -- we lie."
Conservatives complain that, in order to appear open to compromise with Democrats, the administration has refused to rule out raising the cap on payroll taxes, cutting retirement benefits or eliminating private investment accounts.
Mr. Pence said House conservatives adamantly oppose those options. "We're prepared to support government's borrowing money to get the fundamental reform of personal accounts. It's like refinancing your mortgage: You pay points upfront but save a lot more in the long run," he said.
"If we take personal retirement accounts off the table, as Democrats want, we are simply in the old tax-increase, benefits-cut trap," Mr. Pence said.
The White House has garbled its message, said Peter Ferrara, who was a policy adviser in the Reagan administration.
"I can't understand why this White House staff sends the president out to sell personal savings accounts for Social Security with the message that they don't really solve the problem," Mr. Ferrara said. "Is it any wonder then that the more the president talks about personal accounts, the lower they sink in the polls?"
The senior Republican senator said privately that the only way to avoid a bad deal on Social Security may be "to pull the trigger on the nuclear option."
This, he said, would mean changing Senate rules to force an end to Democratic filibusters and a vote on Mr. Bush's judicial nominees. The Democrats likely would retaliate by filibustering all Republican bills. Republicans then could blame Democrats for blocking Social Security reform.
Others say it is too early to abandon hope of passing the kind of Social Security plan that conservatives support.
"Once Americans understand the choices they have -- that they will own their personal retirement accounts and will be able to pass them on to loved ones, they will flock to personal retirement accounts," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.