- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Last week the chattering classes thought they cleverly detected the grinding of sharpening steel that — in their minds, anyway — mortally wounded the president’s top domestic priority. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, according to The Washington Post, raised major “doubts” about the president’s Social Security proposal. The paper’s front-page headline gleefully reported that Mr. Thomas said the “Bush plan is doomed.” Others in the media quickly piled on.

Is that the scraping sound of sharpening stilettos on the Capitol steps?

Oh, how the press wants to write a story about Republicans knifing their own president. After years of aligned political interests, Republicans in Congress and President Bush now face divergent goals. The White House longs for legacy, while lawmakers think re-election. It’s a potentially volatile political concoction that could blow a big hole in the party’s unity tent, collapsing the Republican legislative agenda. And while many issues could detonate the explosive brew, Social Security reform — to the media’s way of thinking — has the shortest fuse.

The media’s red lights might flash again in the days ahead, ticketing the president’s Social Security plan for going too fast and too far for his own troops. But the capital’s “police” may want to recalibrate their radar guns. They misinterpreted Chairman Thomas’ comments, they misunderstand the legislative process, and they miscalculated the impact of the administration’s advocacy artillery — aimed first at Congress, and then at the country. This battle is just starting.

My alternative theory gets its first test as congressional Republicans begin their annual bicameral retreat at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va. today. And several knowledgeable sources say the White House has an impressive arsenal of speakers and statistics to ease lawmakers’ concerns about the planned level of political support and the flexibility they will provide Congress in shaping a final product.

“Based on what I’ve heard, the members are going to be very impressed with the White House plan,” a knowledgeable Republican staffer told me. “I think they could come away from the retreat believing the administration really has their ducks in a row on the issue,” he said.

Not only will the president make his pitch, but other key administration officials like Treasury Secretary John Snow and senior White House aides will walk lawmakers through an elaborate policy, communications and political strategy for pushing Social Security reform. The administration will likely show some policy flexibility, but also willingness to flex its political muscle — two needed ingredients to make new law.

Republican lawmakers will welcome this news. “The big story coming out of this weekend is not that we’re walking away from the president on this issue, but that we’ll enthusiastically work with him to get it done,” the same staffer told me.

Reporters salivating at the prospect of the White House’s number one legislative initiative being clubbed to death by the bats of his own home team also misunderstand the legislative process. This weekend may prove the distance between the White House and congressional Republicans is more a reflection of reporters’ reflexive instinct to create conflict even when none exists.

Plus, the White House fully expects the Hill to shape and refine the final legislative product. The president will articulate the problem, outline his solution, and provide heavy-duty political air cover. Congress will then fill in the details through the lawmaking process and produce a bill the president can sign. Other high-profile political issues like tax cuts, No Child Left Behind and Medicare prescription-drug legislation all followed this well-worn path. None of these measures was rubber-stamped by Congress, and nor will Social Security. That was the real message in Chairman Thomas’ speech last week.

Passing this measure is more complicated than a connect-the-dots diagram, but we’ve seen this picture before. Lawmakers will work with the White House to produce a bill the president can sign. “Everything Thomas is doing is meant to move the process forward,” a Republican leadership aide told me. Will the final product give the president 100 percent of what he wants? No way. But will Congress produce a bill he can sign, take credit for and positively reform the system? You bet.

Other issues may indeed divide congressional Republicans and the White House down the road. Yet despite the media’s fondest hopes, this weekend could result in circling the wagons around the president’s Social Security initiative rather than wounding it with gashes of dissent.

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