Republican leaders of Congress won’t bring Social Security legislation to a floor vote until they are convinced that the American people fully understand the issue and want a solution.
“The pacing of Social Security, which we’re all interested in, is going to be determined by the American people,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.
“The timing of it on the floor — I’m going to have to sense the rate, the rhythm, the sort of pulse of the American people.”
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, agreed.
“We’re going to talk to the American people,” he said. “When we feel comfortable enough that they understand what the issue is, the Ways and Means Committee will write a bill.”
After a week of Social Security town-hall meetings nationwide, Democrats said yesterday that the public tide is strongly against President Bush’s idea to let younger workers invest part of their Social Security contributions in private accounts. Key Republicans acknowledged that their party will have to work harder to convince Americans that it’s a good idea.
“The Democrats were very well organized,” said Mr. DeLay, adding that he was disappointed that only about one-third of his Republican colleagues held Social Security town meetings during the Presidents Day break. “Members are going to have to understand that we’re going to have to talk to our constituents about this,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said most Republicans didn’t want to hold town meetings on personal Social Security accounts “because it’s a very unpopular issue.”
“I don’t think the Republicans are very happy with the position the president’s put them in,” he said.
Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, said his party has a lot of work to do but that people are still forming their opinions.
“I think the spectrum ranges from modest support to open hostility, with the majority being still not fully informed,” said Mr. Pence, who held two town-hall meetings last week.
Democrats who held town meetings reported widespread opposition to Mr. Bush’s idea.
“This privatization plan is sinking like a rock,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the Presidents Day recess was not good for Republicans.
Mr. DeLay said that although the press is eager to report that Republicans are “running for the hills, nothing can be farther from the truth.”
“A solid majority believe that there is a problem” with the Social Security system, said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican.
“The seniors I talked to, when presented the facts, are supportive” of reform, said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
The Senate seems to be taking the lead on negotiations over Social Security legislation, and some House Republicans say that strategy suits their leaders.
A Republican House member who asked not to be named said his party’s leaders in the chamber are concerned about what would happen if the House passes a strong Social Security bill that pleases Mr. Bush but the Senate fails to act.
The congressman recalled that in the 1990s, House Democrats reluctantly passed a British thermal unit (Btu) tax at Vice President Al Gore’s request. The Senate refused to pass the tax legislation, leaving House Democrats to face unhappy constituents.
House Republican leaders do not want to be “Btu-ed” on Social Security, the lawmaker said.
“There’s a lot of talk about having the Senate go first, and I think that is one of the reasons,” said another House Republican who asked not to be named.
Mr. DeLay said it is too early to decide which chamber acts first.