- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

TAMPA, Fla. — President Bush yesterday turned up the political heat on fence-sitting Democratic senators by storming onto their home turf to rally support for his Social Security reform plans.

The stops on the president’s two-day whirlwind tour of North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida, which ended yesterday, were not chosen by accident. Mr. Bush won each of the states in the November presidential race, yet they send at least one Democratic senator to Washington — a political contradiction the White House thinks it can exploit.

At a rally in Little Rock, Ark., Mr. Bush decried the “scare tactics” that long have made tackling the Social Security issue a huge political risk. He insisted that “the dynamics have shifted.”

“It used to be, people were afraid to talk about Social Security,” he said. “Now, I think people should be afraid not to talk about Social Security and start coming up with some solutions.”

Congressional Republicans have been reluctant to take the rhetorical lead on Social Security reform, especially with Democrats and powerful interest groups gearing up for a fierce political fight.

But Mr. Bush thinks he can turn the tide by reprising the campaign-style strategy that persuaded a reluctant Congress to pass three rounds of tax cuts in his first term.

“This is an important concept, and it’s going to take time to explain to people,” Mr. Bush said in front of a carefully screened audience of 7,000 supporters in Omaha, Neb.

Before the town hall-style event in Omaha, the president met privately with Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who is among the few members of his party keeping an open mind about Mr. Bush’s reform plans.

Mr. Nelson told reporters before yesterday’s event at a packed arena that he is “looking to be supportive, but I can’t support something until I see the entire plan.”

“Right now we have people debating empty boxes and not even talking about what the cost to the deficit might be from restructuring,” said Mr. Nelson, who is up for re-election in 2006. “The last thing we need to do is make it worse when we say we’re making it better.

“I want to make sure that people not only above 55 are protected, but people below 55 are protected,” he said. “That’s a tall order, but that’s what we have to do — make sure the benefits are OK without adding significantly to the deficit.”

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who is expected to reveal his own reform ideas in the coming weeks, told reporters that “the president is right to take this on.”

“It’s politically risky for him, and maybe others who support him, but I think the American public is very wise and understands that this is a program that’s going to have to be reformed,” Mr. Hagel said.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, said she is eager to work with Mr. Bush to ensure Social Security is solvent into the next century, “but I will not allow current benefits to be put at risk.”

While Mr. Bush stresses that “all options are on the table,” a deal-breaker would be any plan that raises payroll taxes to pay for the transition costs — estimated at between $600 billion and $2 trillion over the next 10 years.

But it was clear for the first time yesterday that the president knows he will have to do a lot of compromising on other issues.

“I fully recognize a personal retirement account is not the only thing needed to solve Social Security permanently,” Mr. Bush said. “But it’s part of the solution, and I believe I have a responsibility as someone who has put the issue on the table to be a constructive voice in coming up with a solution that will save Social Security for younger workers.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat — who also is up for re-election next year — was not in attendance at Mr. Bush’s rally at the Tampa Convention Center and was leaning against the private accounts.

“I will fight against the cuts to Social Security benefits, the massive borrowing and increase in debt that this will create,” he told the Associated Press.

Mr. Bush’s reform plans face intense partisan opposition. Every Senate Democrat — except Ben Nelson — signed a letter in opposition to the president’s proposal, and some of the most powerful Democratic-friendly interest groups are girding for a big political battle.

The AARP said, “We will wage the fight of our lives” against Mr. Bush, and the liberal MoveOn.org has begin airing ads suggesting the elderly will have to work through their retirement because Mr. Bush would ruin Social Security.

The president, however, has tried to head off the most common criticisms in his latest sales pitch.

“Some people say, well, sure, it’s easy for the president to say [their private accounts] are going to grow,” Mr. Bush said. “But what happens if somebody puts it in the lottery?

“Look, if we ever get the concept of personal retirement accounts started, there are going to be guidelines,” he said.

The White House said the private account investments would be increasingly conservative as one approaches retirement age to protect against a sudden downturn in the market.

Mr. Bush also said that owners of these private accounts would not be able to withdraw their equity all at once, but would draw down on it just as one does in the current Social Security program.

“This plan needs to start gradually, so workers can get used to it and we can better afford the plan within projected cash-flow needs,” Mr. Bush said. “It makes sense to me, and I want Congress to debate it.”

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