- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

News stories asserting that President Bush’s proposal to create personal Social Security investment accounts is losing ground with voters and in Congress are greatly exaggerated, say lawmakers and policy strategists who support the president’s plan.

While backers of Mr. Bush’s sweeping reforms want him to talk a lot more about the increased financial assets that retired workers would accrue and actually own under his plan, members of Congress and policy-makers say that talk of the plan’s early demise is premature at best and that the debate is going to be a long drawn-out legislative battle that won’t be settled at the earliest until sometime this fall.

“What we’re seeing is artificial hysteria in the press. 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,” said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, a chief sponsor of one of several personal retirement account bills in Congress.

A rash of news stories and polls over the past few weeks suggested that support for Mr. Bush’s plan was in steep decline, but a far different view emerges from recent interviews with lobbyists, lawmakers and policy analysts who say there is more support for the idea — in town-hall meetings and in negotiating sessions on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans — than is being reported in the press.

“We’re going to have Senate consideration of a Social Security bill sometime this year. I’m not going to miss an opportunity that comes along once in 20 years,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee.

Mr. Grassley — who told The Washington Times, “I feel very positive that there is a door opening up” — said he has been having fruitful meetings with Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the committee’s ranking Democrat, and with a group of Democratic senators brought together by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, a chief proponent of Mr. Bush’s plan.

“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,” he said.

Yesterday on “Fox News Sunday,” White House counselor Dan Bartlett emphasized that debate over Social Security changes has just begun.

“We’re still in the early phase of educating the public about why there needs to be change,” Mr. Bartlett said. “Once that is cemented, then members of Congress will feel the pressure that they need to do something.”

Last month, Mr. Grassley, Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and other GOP leaders were sending mixed signals on Mr. Bush’s proposal, and the administration was getting battered by House and Senate Democrats, the AARP and an army of liberal advocacy groups.

Supporters complained that the White House seemed unorganized and without a communications strategy. “There’s no counter play. The president needs to have surrogates and members of the House and Senate to embrace the discussion and respond to the attacks,” said Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“The administration seems very disorganized on this,” said Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, which has long championed private investment accounts. “Bush should be saying that he wants to make what you paid into the system something real that you own and can leave to your heirs.”

But the White House appears to have regained its footing in the last week. Mr. Bush has begun a 60-city national campaign for his proposal, a major business and grass-roots lobbying effort is well under way, and Mr. Grassley and Mr. Frist are back on message, both promising legislative action before the year is over.

“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.

“If you talk to the people who are doing the town-hall meetings, they had a vocal, well-organized opposition, but they expected that. 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,” Mr. John said.

After 35 town-hall meetings in his congressional district, Mr. Ryan said those who attended them 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.”

Mr. Bush’s supporters and even some within the administration say the White House did not fully anticipate the fierce offensive launched by the Democratic Party and its liberal allies in organized labor and the AARP, whose 35 million members make it the most powerful political lobbying force in the country.

“I think the opponents got out quicker than the White House expected them to and beat up on the idea before the White House was fully prepared to respond,” said Michael Tanner, chief Social Security analyst at the Cato Institute. Still, Mr. Tanner isn’t worried, yet.

“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. The White House is just beginning to ramp up its efforts and their allied groups are beginning to organize,” he said.

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