To win Social Security reform, GOP plans to reprise election

The White House and Republican leaders in Congress are mapping out a nine-month strategy to educate the public on Social Security reform and convince anxious GOP incumbents that it is in their best interests to revamp the entitlement system this year.
The White House and Republican leaders in Congress are mapping out a nine-month strategy to educate the public on Social Security reform and convince anxious GOP incumbents that it is in their best interests to revamp the entitlement system this year.
patrick g. ryan
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.): Meeting behind the scenes to devise a plan for Social Security reform.

GOP officials fresh from the campaign trail are mobilizing for another 2004-style effort to reform Social Security — coordinating messages from Capitol Hill, the White House and the Republican National Committee (RNC); recruiting ground troops; running a television ad campaign; and deploying surrogates such as Vice President Cheney to drum up support.

As President Bush has been preparing for tomorrow’s inaugural address, Republican operatives — including Ken Mehlman, expected to become RNC chairman today, White House political strategist Barry Jackson and representatives of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — have been meeting behind the scenes to devise a game plan to pass Social Security reform.

“Considering this is a centerpiece of our agenda, it’s natural that we would plan meticulously,” one House Republican aide said. “Obviously, the other side is fully focused and determined to derail our agenda and demagogue our efforts, and that we need to man the battle stations to ensure that we’re not only able to advance our agenda but also respond rapidly to their smear campaign.”

The staffer added that Republicans had learned from the prescription-drug-benefit debate of late 2003, when the GOP prevailed in the House only after a protracted vote and extensive arm-twisting of several conservative Republicans. Declining to delve into specifics, the aide said: “We learned some lessons what to do, and some lessons what not to do.”

Other Republican lawmakers playing key roles in the effort Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).

Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Republican Conference chairman and chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee, also will lead a group, the Social Security Communications Working Group, “to motivate the base and persuade key political constituencies,” a Senate aide said.

Besides Cheney, White House economic adviser Gregory Mankiw, Treasury Secretary John Snow and Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten have given public speeches calling for Social Security reform.

Simultaneously, many outside groups with close ties to the Hill and the administration are gearing up for, they say, a nationwide, grassroots effort that will cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

Derrick Max, the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security’s executive director, said the group will focus on Washington — educating lawmakers about why, he said, now is the time for reform — while another group he heads, CoMPASS (or Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America’s Social Security) will look beyond the Washington Beltway.

“I think there’s meetings going on, sharing poll data, sharing focus-group data, making sure that we’re all responding with the same answers,” Max said, referring to Republicans across Washington working on Social Security. “I think it’ll take on the feel of a campaign.”

On Friday, the Alliance will hold a meeting at the Dirksen Senate Office Building geared toward congressional staff members. Max said the group has received 120 or so positive responses to the invitation so far.

CoMPASS, he added, will concentrate on the general public, using earned and paid media and direct mail to make the case for revamping the 70-year-old cornerstone of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Progress for America, a conservative group that ran ads during the presidential race, already has launched a television campaign on CNN and Fox, Max said. A spokesman for the group did not return telephone calls.

Some Republicans have questioned whether there is adequate support in their own party to make reform a reality this year. Jessica Boulanger, press secretary for House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), would say only that “it’s premature to comment on any specifics of [the whip] operation.”

Republicans are also divided about which Democrats are most likely to cooperate.

Many expect Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, to take the lead, but some Democrats are still miffed with Baucus over his role in the prescription-drug debate, when he helped cut a deal with Republicans.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who recently co-wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Social Security advocate, calling for the system’s overhaul, is another possibility, Republicans said. Conrad, one Republican noted, is up for reelection in 2006 and may not want to be viewed as an obstructionist — a label that some say played a major role in Sen. Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) defeat in November.

Conrad said yesterday that he opposes circumventing the normal budgeting process and putting Social Security reform “off-budget.” He also dismissed suggestions that his involvement was politically motivated. “That’s really the kind of thing that’s not very useful,” he said, adding that he’s been interested in Social Security for nearly two decades.