Thursday, June 16, 2005

Rank-and-file House Republicans, citing nervousness among colleagues and lack of intensity on the issue, say their leaders probably won’t force a vote on Social Security this year.

But the White House is calling for action and promising to campaign for those who back the effort to revamp the program.

“I think there’s a growing feeling that there’s a greater chance it won’t happen this time,” said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican.

Another House Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Republicans “have lost a lot of momentum” on the effort and that a Supreme Court vacancy will likely “shut the Senate down for months [and] push the issue into next year.”

“There’s a growing expectation this will not happen this year,” the Republican said.

“I wouldn’t bet my farm on it,” Rep. Ralph Regula, Ohio Republican, said of a House vote this year. “People are a little nervous.”

But White House spokesman Trent Duffy said President Bush wants action on Social Security reform this year and would assist those who support him. Mr. Duffy said the president “appreciates how sensitive it is politically” and, in the coming campaign season, “will help those who support his agenda.” He noted that Mr. Bush has raised millions for the races of Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Jim Talent of Missouri.

Mr. Duffy also said Democrats will run Social Security attack ads against Republicans in the next election whether or not there is congressional action, so it’s better to act on something positive than to do nothing.

“The notion that not acting will neutralize attack ads on Social Security is pure fantasy,” Mr. Duffy said.

Still, some House Republicans aren’t sure the issue has momentum.

Mrs. Capito, who is undecided but skeptical of Mr. Bush’s proposal for Social Security personal accounts, said the effort hasn’t been a high priority on meeting agendas or in conversations lately. She said a briefing by a Ways and Means Committee aide left her feeling that the issue “doesn’t have the intensity that it needs to move forward.”

The Social Security effort wasn’t discussed at yesterday’s House Republican conference meeting either, said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican.

Rep. Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican who strongly supports Mr. Bush’s plan, said, “I don’t think there’s a consensus,” and added that Mr. Bush and Republican leaders are “ahead of the members [of Congress] and the public.”

Rep. Anne M. Northup, a Kentucky Republican who also supports personal accounts, said she’s “disappointed” that some House Republicans think voting on a Social Security bill, especially one with personal accounts, “seems chancy,” as if “they’re sticking their neck out” going into the 2006 elections.

Mrs. Northup said the House should move forward, and argued that once the House passes a bill that can be clearly explained, the public will embrace it.

Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, is working to craft a House bill that not only includes Social Security reform, but also other retirement issues, like pensions. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, also is trying to get consensus on a bill.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, was optimistic about the House’s chances.

“There’s still a lot of this year left,” he said. “I think it’s likely that some sort of Social Security will be on the floor this year.”

Some rank-and-file Republicans agreed that floor action is likely this year.

“I’m expecting something before the end of the year,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican.

Still, when asked recently, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, wouldn’t say whether the House will vote on a Social Security bill this congressional session. Mr. DeLay again wouldn’t give a time frame when asked Tuesday, but said, “When we have a sense of what the House will pass, we’ll bring it up.”

One problem is that Republicans are divided over whether the House should push ahead first or wait to see whether the Senate will act. Many — like Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee — don’t want to take a politically tough vote only to have the Senate fail to act.

“I hope that we don’t all have to walk the plank … on some big Social Security reform that the Senate won’t act on,” Mr. Wamp said.

Others, like Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, say the House should act first, passing a strong personal accounts Social Security bill that “reflects Republican principles.”

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