- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

Democrats escalated their criticism of President Bush's Social Security reform plan last week, but the White House could not have been happier to see that the attacks are drawing little, if any, media attention.
Struggling to get some news coverage and political visibility for their efforts to make Mr. Bush's personal investment accounts an issue in the congressional elections, Senate Democrats held a press conference Thursday headed by Majority Leader Tom Daschle to denounce the president's proposal in the strongest terms to date.
In a letter to Mr. Bush signed by 49 Senate Democrats, Mr. Daschle, of South Dakota, said: "We believe that the benefit cuts proposed by your commission are so drastic that, so long as they remain on the table, they will make it difficult to establish a viable bipartisan process."
But despite the increased importance that Mr. Daschle's participation gave the Capitol Hill press conference, a White House official said Friday that "we saw only one news story on it."
The Democrats' latest broadside against Mr. Bush's plan to let workers voluntarily invest some of their payroll taxes in preapproved stock and bond mutual funds is the latest in a line of growing attacks that they have been waging against the administration.
But so far the White House has refused to directly respond to their charges. Instead, responses have come from either a handful of Republican lawmakers or members of the president's commission to reform Social Security. The panel developed three options to implement Mr. Bush's plan.
"There's been virtually no coverage, nothing. If the attackers cannot elevate this to the level of a national partisan issue, we're not going to help them do it," a key administration strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Friday.
The central criticism that is being repeated in all of the Democrats' attacks is that the personal retirement accounts proposed by the commission would result in deep benefit cuts for current and future retirees.
"These cuts would apply to everyone, even those who do not invest in private accounts," the Democrats charged in their latest letter.
In a written reply, two members of the commission, former Rep. Timothy J. Penny, Minnesota Democrat, and Thomas R. Saving, a trustee of the Social Security Administration, said the charges of benefit reductions were false.
They noted that the commission's final report contains nonpartisan analyses of its proposals by the Social Security Administration's chief actuary that "refute the contentions made in the letter."
"Even if the assumptions behind the SSA analysis are not accepted by the letter's signatories, implications that today's average benefit level of near $10,000 would be reduced by any of the commission's recommendations are absolutely fanciful," they said.
Two House Republican leaders also responded quickly to the Democratic charges. Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington, vice chairwoman of the House Republican conference, said: "It is the height of hypocrisy for Democrats to accuse the president of wanting to cut benefits because retaining the status quo, as the Democrats wish to do, will ultimately lead to a 33 percent cut in benefits."
Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida, chairman of the Social Security subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, accused the Senate Democrats of "using Social Security as a political battering ram to hide the fact that they have no plan to strengthen Social Security."
Presidential advisers expect the Democrats to further intensify their political attacks as the November election draws closer, but they say the White House has no plans at present to directly respond to them as long as the attacks are not getting any political traction with voters.
"We lose if this descends into a partisan standoff. They don't care if they win or lose; they want to make this a partisan battleground and draw us into it," a White House official said.
"If the press begins to take these attacks more seriously, we'd reconsider. But right now we say let them put their stuff out. We want to debate this in a serious, nonpartisan way," the official said.


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