- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

Some Republican lawmakers say President Bush should ease up on his calls for Social Security reform and focus on other topics this election year, depriving Democrats of the opportunity to claim that the administration wants to “privatize” the program.

“He should settle on the idea that he wants to get some comprehensive immigration bill, and that’s about it this year,” said Rep. Ray LaHood, Illinois Republican. “Social Security is dead. I would say stick with immigration — it has the potential to be a winner.”

Mr. Bush has made strong statements recently about the need to reform Medicare and Social Security, saying late last month: “If we can’t get it done this year, I’m going to try next year. And if we can’t get it done next year, I’m going to try the year after that because it is the right thing to do.” A few key Republicans also have touted Social Security reform recently, including Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana.

“I don’t think it’s helpful,” said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican.

Mr. Smith said the president succeeded last year in convincing people that there was a financial problem facing Social Security, but he just doesn’t have the votes on Capitol Hill to make changes to the system right now.

Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican who supports Mr. Bush’s reform efforts, said the issue would be reduced to sound bites in this busy election-year environment, and that’s not helpful.

“A simple-minded, 30-second debate, the Democrats win,” Mr. Feeney said. “I don’t think it’s good political strategy.”

Last year, Mr. Bush and many congressional Republicans pushed the idea of diverting some of the payroll tax out of Social Security and into personal accounts to be invested for a worker’s retirement. The proposal failed to gain steam on Capitol Hill and, many said, in the public.

This year, Mr. Bush proposed a commission to examine solutions for the fiscal problems facing Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs. Many Republicans also have been discussing this broader approach.

But Democrats have seized on the issue, saying it’s clear that Mr. Bush and Republicans still want their “privatization” plan. House and Senate Democratic leaders are planning a press event in two weeks to criticize Republicans on Social Security reform.

“What we’re going to focus on is ensuring that Republicans don’t get their wish to privatize Social Security,” said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. That pledge is part of House Democrats’ recent “new direction” agenda.

But Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said Democrats would have tried to use the issue this year anyway, and he appreciates Mr. Bush’s continual calls for reform.

“I don’t think it’s a mistake,” he said. “He’s trying to do something constructive, and [Democrats] are just trying to obstruct.”

Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, said Mr. Bush is simply urging members to find a solution.

“I think it’s fair to say we’ve got a problem, we’ve got to deal with it,” he said.

Miss Crider said Democrats were planning on raising the Social Security issue against Republicans this year, but that recent statements by Mr. Bush and others have made it easier. “Republicans keep giving us openings,” she said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said raising the issue will hurt Republicans in November, especially with seniors. Mr. Bush “didn’t learn his lesson” last year, he said.

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