Sunday, February 6, 2005

Short of President Bush himself, Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. House of Representatives, will be the most important man in the brewing congressional fight over how to overhaul Social Security.

The brainy and sometimes abrasive chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee already has broadened the president’s proposed terms for the debate to turn it into a free-wheeling discussion of retirement and a broad sweep of U.S. tax policy — which top Republicans say may well have rescued their party by steering the debate toward a more effective strategy.

The California Republican, who has helped Mr. Bush sign four tax-cut packages into law since his 2001 elevation to chairman, recently suggested examining ways to help people save for their long-term and chronic care needs along with Social Security, as well as perhaps finding other ways to fund Social Security beyond the payroll tax. He also said lawmakers shouldn’t contemplate raising the Social Security retirement age to save money without also discussing adjusting benefits for race and sex, according to longevity.

“What I’m trying to get people to do is get out of the narrow moving-around-of-the-pieces in the Social Security box,” Mr. Thomas said at a Jan. 18 panel discussion sponsored by the National Journal. He later made similar comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

His ideas were immediately attacked, and the press was quick to note his deviation from Mr. Bush, who had been talking mainly about Social Security reform and the idea of allowing workers to invest part of their contributions in private accounts.

But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said Mr. Thomas’ move was “brilliance.”

“Actually, what he did was save us from ourselves in developing a strategy that not only can get done what the president wants, but really take a look at retirement security for senior citizens,” Mr. DeLay said, adding that Mr. Bush is open to the new, broader approach.

The former political science professor who spurred the Republican shift in strategy is described by friends and colleagues as highly intelligent, energetic, hard-working and demanding of himself and those he works with. As head of Ways and Means, he presides over all tax law and most Medicare and Social Security legislation, and in the heat of the legislative session, he can be found wandering the halls of the Capitol late at night, poring over documents, crunching numbers and looking for solutions.

Often, when trying to find the votes to move a major piece of legislation, he will venture to the Senate floor to run options by key senators of both parties, or to stop in Senate leadership offices, before returning to the House to brief appropriate leaders on the latest state of play.

“He has a very fertile mind,” said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who has worked closely with Mr. Thomas on a range of bills as the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.

“Never underestimate Bill Thomas’ ability to shake things up and to some extent make things more complicated,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, “but he’s been very effective at getting things done by doing that.”

As with other issues, Mr. DeLay said Mr. Thomas’ strategy will truly help Republicans succeed on Social Security.

“If you’re only focused on a couple of issues within the Social Security system and private accounts, then the opposition has a single focus, and getting 60 votes in the Senate is near impossible,” he explained.

Mr. DeLay said if the reform is expanded to other issues within retirement security, like pensions, long-term care and tax issues, other more interested groups come on board. “It brings different coalitions together,” he said.

Mr. Thomas has chosen not to clarify his recent comments any further to the press and was away at a Republican retreat late last week.

Rep. Bobby Jindal, a newly elected Republican from Louisiana, worked for Mr. Thomas as executive director of a bipartisan Medicare commission from 1998 to 1999 and highly values his advice and guidance. He wasn’t surprised by Mr. Thomas’ ideas to broaden the current debate, because the chairman is known to push others beyond what they think they are capable of doing.

“I think he’ll push the administration to do more than maybe even they thought possible,” Mr. Jindal said about Social Security and retirement.

The chairman, who can be sarcastic and off-putting at times, has been known to rub people the wrong way, but allies and critics alike respect his effectiveness.

In the 107th Congress, Mr. Thomas played a key role in shepherding Mr. Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut, a trade measure that gave Mr. Bush fast-track authority and a $42 billion 2002 economic-stimulus package. He was a key player in passing the Medicare prescription-drug bill into law in the following Congress.

A 2004 Washingtonian magazine survey of congressional aides ranked Mr. Thomas the “meanest” House member with the “hottest temper,” but he also came in first in the “brainiest” and “workhorse” categories.

Some of his closest colleagues say his critics don’t understand that what drives Mr. Thomas isn’t simply politics, but a deep respect for the institution and good legislation.

“The most important thing about him that often gets overlooked is he’s a guy who really wears his heart on his sleeve,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, a fellow California Republican who considers Mr. Thomas a mentor and friend. “He cares deeply about the institution and good government.”

His passion sometimes gets him in trouble, however, and some complain about the way he runs his committee. A Democratic member of the Ways and Means panel who asked not to be identified said Mr. Thomas’ “major fault” is that he sets a partisan tone and rarely gives Democrats the chance to weigh in on the big issues.

Mr. Thomas made a tearful apology on the House floor in 2003 for calling the Capitol Hill police to remove panel Democrats from a committee meeting room.

Still, Republicans are counting on his know-how and drive in the Social Security reform battle ahead. Critics already are pointing out that it will be a hard sell because of a wary public, harsh Democratic opposition and hesitation even from some Republicans. But Mr. Bush and Republican leaders seem determined.

“And thank God, we’ve got Bill Thomas, who’s the brightest, best legislator we’ve got, in charge,” Mr. DeLay said.

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