- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Top Senate Republicans told President Bush yesterday that he needs to do a better job of driving the debate over Social Security reform and explaining the case to the public.

“We informed him that, from our perspective on the Hill, others are defining the debate,” said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, specifically citing Democrats and the press.

Mr. Bush asked for the strategy session yesterday with Mr. Smith and other members of the Senate Finance Committee, which will be responsible for advancing any Social Security reform legislation.

“I think he feels very passionately about this and is going to take the case to the American people,” said Mr. Smith, Oregon Republican.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, who has expressed some reservations about Mr. Bush’s idea to let younger workers invest some of their Social Security money in private accounts, said the discussion was “frank and open.”

Several Republicans who attended the meeting said the party must better communicate with the public about Social Security’s financial crisis, the need for reform, and the options to fix it.

“We’ve got to — and not just we, Republicans, but this body needs to engage the American people much better,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said before the meeting.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said the debate has been driven by the news media and that Republicans “have not explained why it’s necessary.”

Mr. Bush has not yet given lawmakers a detailed legislative plan, but repeatedly has discussed his principles, including keeping the system the same for those currently in or near retirement, and creating the option of private accounts for younger workers.

Meanwhile, Democrats have attacked Mr. Bush’s personal-accounts idea as too risky and expensive. Some Republicans have also been hesitant to accept it, and a few even have questioned the urgency of Social Security reform.

Mr. Bush and many Republicans say Social Security is facing a bleak future, and that Congress should step in now to save it for future generations. In 2018, the system will begin paying out more money than it is taking in, and in about 2042, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted.

Mrs. Snowe and others said that to end speculation, Mr. Bush should put forth a specific proposal. The president didn’t give details yesterday, but assured the group that the details would be forthcoming — especially in the State of the Union address next week, she said.

Other Republicans, such as Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, don’t want Mr. Bush to get too specific.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported last night that National Republican Congressional Committee pollsters told House party leaders in a confidential memo that they must consider the Social Security proposals “in the context of the 2006 midterm elections.”

The pollsters cautioned that workers age 55 and older, who are likely to make up 40 percent or more of the electorate in 2006, are closely divided on the issue, but that support for Republican reforms weakens as the issues are explained.

Republicans have persuasive arguments on their side, the memo said, suggesting they stress that the accounts are voluntary, will let workers control their own investments, and allow their children to inherit any accumulations.

Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, threw a curve ball last week by suggesting that Congress examine some broader ideas for Social Security reform, such as creating other ways to finance the system besides the payroll tax.

He also said that if lawmakers consider raising the Social Security retirement age as a way to save money, they also should consider adjusting benefits by sex and race longevity.

Democrats yesterday warned that while they want to be included in crafting a bill, some things are not acceptable , including Mr. Thomas’ sex-and-race adjustment idea.

“I hope when the president and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle say they want to act in a bipartisan way, they understand that some things are simply off the table,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “We cannot use race or gender to determine benefits, just as we should not pursue a privatization plan that will make deep cuts in benefits.”

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