- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

UPI describes the president’s top domestic initiative as “bogged down.” Business Week agrees, saying it’s “stalled,” while the New York Times confidently calls it “dead.” A legislative patient with this kind of prognosis will never amble into a Rose Garden signing ceremony, right?

But what about a second opinion? Especially since the above quotes are not about Social Security, but Ronald Reagan’s tax reform bill 20 years ago, which became law several months later.

“The media has a hard time figuring out what to say and write every day of a year-long process,” a senior White House official told me. “So they draw wrong conclusions. Believe me, if we thought this thing (Social Security reform) was dead, we would have moved on. But it’s very much alive,” he said.

With the completion of the administration’s “60 Stops in 60 Days” advocating strengthening Social Security, the debate pivots, shifting from convincing voters about the problem to persuading lawmakers to craft solutions.

Despite persistent media doubts, the fog shrouding the lawmaking end zone will begin to lift, revealing why naysayers are wrong.

Legislative success is a combination of momentum, focus and attention from the right people. Social Security includes generous dollops of all three — beginning with a president spending an unprecedented amount of time dishing out political capital, visiting 22 states in the past three months to talk up the issue.

Skeptics also place too little emphasis on the role of the House of Representatives. The cohesive majority there could pass a bill tomorrow that reforms Social Security and creates personal accounts. That alone gets the issue halfway down the field.

Moreover, whenever the House acts, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas will inject some new elements into the debate, providing additional incentives for retirement savings. The media erroneously considers this “breaking ranks” with the White House — a dead-wrong conclusion. His efforts just provide more fuel for the legislative engine.

With House passage less problematic, the Senate becomes the key battlefield. Finance Chairman Charles Grassley will soon move into high gear on the issue. He probably won’t get a Democrat at the start of the process, but he may convince several by the end.

“Saying ‘no’ in theory is one thing. But voting against a specific plan is a lot tougher,” an administration official told me. “That’s the phase we’re moving into, and it’s going to get real hard for Democrats to just say no.” As Kevin Hassett argued in National Review Online last week, offering nothing but obstruction could produce a lot more “Tom Daschles” in 2006. He’s right. And over the next several weeks, Democrats’ “abominable ‘no-man’ ” stance will become increasingly ridiculed by the media and politically unsustainable.

A bipartisan “solvency-only” bill with some add-on savings incentives might be the only thing that can garner the needed 60 votes in the Senate. A Grassley bill could get just that, and now reform is in the legislative “red zone.”

Later this year a final compromise gets written in conference committee. Invested heavily in the process, lawmakers and the president will not likely give up, reaching a point where too many important lawmakers have too much invested. It becomes, in effect, “too big to fail.”

Legislation reaching the conference phase where the Ways and Means and Finance Committees are the principal architects has a strong success rate. Mr. Grassley told me recently that his committee’s research indicates that the last time Congress rejected a conference report prepared by those two committees was about 75 years ago, when Congress attempted to pass the first Smoot-Hawley tariff bill.

In the end, don’t bet against this president and the other major Hill players in this process or the sustainability of the Democrats’ current negotiating posture. Certain issues, whether it’s the 1986 tax-reform bill, No Child Left Behind or the Medicare Modernization Act, are linked together in a chain of success because of the personalities involved, the time they invest and the importance of the problem. When it comes to Social Security reform, add another link in the chain. Get ready to change the theme in the news cycle. This one is too big to fail.

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