House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday said most Democrats approve leadership's strategy of not having their own Social Security reform plan for now and of focusing on defeating President Bush's plan.
She said only a few Democrats want to move ahead now with Social Security proposals to counter Mr. Bush's.
"Those are exceptions," the California Democrat said of Democrats like Reps. Robert Wexler of Florida and Dennis Moore of Kansas, who have proposed their own Social Security bills and say other Democrats should follow suit and engage Republicans with specifics.
"Overwhelmingly, our members understand the unity that we have" in focusing on the message that Mr. Bush's private-accounts plan is a terrible idea, Mrs. Pelosi said.
She said "maybe one or two people" want to pursue a different strategy for defeating Mr. Bush's proposal, but "we have over 200 people."
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, agreed with Mrs. Pelosi that now is not the right time for Democrats to offer their Social Security plan, because Mr. Bush still is insisting on creating private accounts, and the president's effort must be stopped first.
"At some point in time, I think, we are going to offer alternatives," Mr. Hoyer said. "I don't think that time has come. The reason I don't think that time has come is because the president continues to press his position. We need to be confident that the American public makes it clear they rejected that alternative."
Opinion polls are encouraging to Democrats, he said, because the most recent one found that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose Mr. Bush's proposal.
Mr. Hoyer also said Republicans are divided on the issue, listing 55 "frightened" Republicans who have not made clear whether they agree with Mr. Bush's ideas to create private accounts and to slow the growth rate of benefits for higher-income retirees.
But Republicans say the Democrats' tactic of simply opposing Mr. Bush without offering an alternative is a dangerous path to take.
"I think there's a political risk to only being an obstructionist," said Rep. Kenny Hulshof, Missouri Republican. "It allows constituents to question your credibility."
Mr. Hulshof said he doesn't support the Wexler bill, but is glad Mr. Wexler is offering a proposal because "this has been a one-sided debate to this point."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, yesterday said more Democrats probably will follow Mr. Wexler's lead and buck their leaders' strategy.
But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, said a true debate on Social Security can't begin until Democratic leaders are willing to negotiate.
"I think you have to have something that Pelosi says is the Democratic position before you have meaningful dialogue," he said.
Mr. Thomas is working to craft legislation that not only addresses changes to Social Security, but also includes broader retirement-related provisions like improvements to pensions, individual retirement accounts and long-term health care. He predicts a broader bill will attract bipartisan support, but hasn't said definitively whether Mr. Bush's structure for private accounts will be part of the final bill.