- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

A dreary drumbeat of news reports keep telling us President Bush’s personal Social Security retirement accounts plan is losing ground in Congress and with the public.

But lawmakers, lobbyists and policy strategists who have been working hard to enact Mr. Bush’s proposal tell me any talk of the plan’s demise is wildly exaggerated.

These obituaries come from the same people who predicted Mr. Bush would have a hard time enacting his tax cuts, education reforms and Medicare prescription drug coverage.

Certainly no one doubts Mr. Bush’s attempt to overhaul the last pillar of the New Deal’s welfare state is a huge undertaking, fraught with political obstacles, but these reports vastly underestimate the president’s postelection clout and the undiminished popularity of his idea among younger workers.

“What we’re seeing is artificial hysteria in the press,” said Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. “We’ll see ups and downs throughout the whole year on this story, and to suggest that it’s over on the eve of the president’s 60-city tour to promote his plan is folly.”

It’s hard to turn on the nightly news without hearing a rash of stories or polls suggesting Mr. Bush’s idea is going down the tubes. But a different view emerges from interviews with key warriors in this battle who see this as a drawn-out legislative process that won’t be settled until this fall, at the earliest.

No one can predict with certainty how this will turn out. But I strongly believe that, with some compromises and D.C. deal-making, there will be a bill and up-or-down votes in Congress. Who says so? None other than the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee’s powerful chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

“We’re going to have Senate consideration of a Social Security bill sometime this year,” he told me. “I’m not going to miss an opportunity that comes along once in 20 years.”

Mr. Grassley also said he has held secret meetings with key Democrats in an effort to hammer out a compromise. As a result, he feels “very positive that there is a door opening up.”

He said he has had fruitful meetings with Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the Finance Committee’s ranking Democrat, and with several Democratic senators brought together by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a chief proponent of Mr. Bush’s personal accounts plan.

The news stories we’ve been hearing on the political battle keep saying the Democrats are totally united against Mr. Bush’s idea. Well, not exactly, Mr. Grassley said. In addition to Democrats he has met with, “I’ve also talked to a couple of other Democrats I won’t name that I have opportunities to work with. What I’m trying to tell you is this isn’t going to go away. We are going to try to get a bill out of committee by working with groups to get a bipartisan majority.”

Sure, there were many missteps by the administration, and its allies in Congress, who sent mixed signals and got battered by House and Senate Democrats and the AARP (whose 35 million members make it the most powerful U.S. lobbying force).

But Republican leaders now seem to be signing onto the same page on the core of Mr. Bush’s plan, promising legislative action before the year is out. And the White House appears to have regained its footing, too, as Mr. Bush plunges into an extraordinary grass-roots offensive, helped by an army of coalition groups that have begun a major TV ad campaign.

“It’s not going perfectly, but I don’t think it is anywhere near as close to disaster as the press would have you think,” said senior Social Security analyst David John of the Heritage Foundation, which has monitored the town hall meetings held around the country on this issue.

“If you talk to the people who are doing the town hall meetings, they had a vocal, well-organized opposition there, but they expected that,” Mr. John told me. “But they also had large groups of people who were interested and came out to talk about the problem and those groups came away feeling better about the administration’s idea.”

After 35 town hall meetings in his congressional district, Mr. Ryan said attendees were typically divided into “one-third who don’t like personal accounts, one-third who do like them and a third who are looking for more information.”

Most of the news stories on this issue do not reflect any of this because a lot of reporters writing them don’t have a clue about what’s going on behind the scenes. “There are a lot of discussions going on in Congress with Democrats, which is one of the reasons why these gloom-and-doom stories are premature,” said an administration adviser.

So don’t believe those obituaries. As Mike Tanner, Cato Institute chief domestic policy analyst, puts it: “Bush is a baseball man. He understands it’s a long season and you always lose a few games. But losing a game doesn’t determine the outcome of the season.” Just ask the Red Sox.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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