Sunday, May 29, 2005

Breaking with the Democrats and AFL-CIO on Social Security, Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr. sent a message to the White House last week that he wants to help them find a bipartisan solution to the programs long-term insolvency.

Mr. Hoffa not only generously praised George W. Bush for his high-risk decision to tackle Social Security, he faulted Democrats for refusing to come to the table until the president drops his personal retirement accounts plan.

The Teamsters union chief doesn’t support Mr. Bush’s plan to let workers invest part of their payroll taxes in the stock market, though it is not clear if he would support direct worker investment in U.S. Treasury bonds, his top aides say.

But he has set his union on a new course to work with Mr. Bush and Republicans in Congress on pension and retirement reform issues that are at the top of the Teamsters’ agenda.

“Social Security is a major problem in this country,” Mr. Hoffa told a reporter for the Gannet News Service in a story that received little attention. “We have to make sure that it’s preserved for those that come after us. I think President Bush should be given credit for the fact that he has initiated a debate regarding what we should do.”

Mr. Hoffa’s overture to the White House, while not all it could be, was still seen as a major attempt to break the ice in his chilly relationship with the West Wing. Early in Mr. Bush’s first term, there was a major effort to work with him on issues of mutual interest.

He backed Mr. Bush’s oil-drilling plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which will provide thousands of jobs for Teamsters, and lobbied Democrats in its behalf. Mr. Hoffa often was seen at the White House, and there was speculation he might support President Bush’s second-term bid.

But Mr. Hoffa turned sharply anti-Bush in the 2004 election cycle and backed John Kerry, though privately he criticized the Kerry campaign and how it was run.

Since then, the realization has dawned that the Teamsters have nothing to gain by being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democrats. Republicans will be in charge of Congress and the White House for the next four years, and Mr. Hoffa now thinks he can work with the GOP on issues like multiemployer pension plans that benefit many of his union members.

“We have to be more bipartisan,” Teamster political director Mike Mathis told me. “The leadership of the AFL-CIO, and particularly its political department, has been in lock step with the Democrats.”

“We think it’s important for us to reach out to Republicans who are willing to work with us, rather than being totally committed to one party,” Mr. Mathis said. “There are Democrats who take us for granted and Republicans who we think we have a chance to work with who don’t reach out to us because they think they don’t have a chance with us.”

Just what role helpful to the administration that Mr. Hoffa can play in the debate over Social Security isn’t clear right now (he favors raising taxes to fix it), except to put more pressure on the Democrats to join the debate in a good-faith effort.

He did so last week when asked about a letter from U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, the Ways and Means Committee’s top Democrat, saying he could not join any discussions until Mr. Bush’s private investment plan for workers is off the table. Mr. Hoffa bluntly replied that was not his position.

“He’s a little frustrated by the lack of discussion, because we have a president who is willing to use his capital to tackle this issue,” Mr. Mathis said. “Here’s a president, even though we disagree with some of his answers to the problem, who is willing to put something on the table.”

“I think Hoffa is extending a huge olive branch. I hope the White House grabs it,” said Derrick Max, executive director of the grass-roots coalition lobbying for Mr. Bush’s plan.

That’s exactly what the White House did last week. “We welcome his comments and hope that it’s a sign of things to come,” Bush spokesman Trent Duffy told me.

But is Mr. Hoffa willing to think more expansively about Social Security reform to let Teamsters get a better rate of return on their hard-earned payroll taxes than the paltry 2 percent they are likely to get when they retire? Teamster officials say private investment is too risky for them, but it’s not too risky for their heavily market-invested union pension funds.

With three-quarters of his members saying Social Security needs to be fixed, Mr. Hoffa opened the door to further discussion by just a crack last week, in sharp contrast to the AFL-CIO’s intransigent opposition to any reform. Maybe he’s ready to go a little further.

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

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