House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called Wexler’s proposal “useful,” but some Democratic leadership aides roundly denounced it as a political blunder.
Although Wexler acknowledged that party leaders were divided on how to proceed politically, he disputed any notion that his colleagues are universally angry at his decision to engage the president by offering a plan that would raise taxes to ensure Social Security’s long-term solvency.
The dispute between Wexler and party leaders is essentially one of timing, and Democrats — including Wexler — remain united in their opposition to any proposal to offer personal accounts, a step they insist is tantamount to privatizing the signature New Deal program.
“I am not talking about Steny or [House Minority Leader] Nancy [Pelosi (D-Calif.)], but there are people who are pretty close to them in that circle who have offered words of encouragement,” Wexler said, declining to provide any names.
Hoyer told reporters yesterday, “I talked to Bob Wexler. I think his proposal is a useful proposal on the table. I think other proposals are useful to have on the table.”
Hoyer did not clarify what he found useful in the proposal.
A Hoyer aide said, “Congressman Hoyer has a well-known reputation for being respectful of members and their ideas, but anyone insinuating that Mr. Hoyer is endorsing or encouraging this proposal and its timing is dead flat wrong and fishing for a story that isn’t true.”
In his remarks, Hoyer appeared to distinguish between an official Democratic plan and one member’s proposal. He said he has long maintained that Democrats will need to advance a solution to a problem he says needs to be solved, adding, “I think we are going to offer alternatives. I don’t think that time has come.”
He added, “We don’t have a Democratic plan at this time. Mr. Wexler didn’t offer it as a Democratic plan.”
Democratic leadership aides were roundly critical of Wexler’s timing, saying it clashed with Pelosi’s strategy of waiting until “we see the whites of their eyes” before offering a Democratic alternative, according to numerous aides.
“The strategy is to wait for a concrete proposal from the president. His numbers are way down, so there’s no reason to put forward a plan if we’re not paying a price politically for not putting out our own plan,” a Democratic leadership aide said, adding, “That’s not something universally agreed upon.”
“Why would we put something out for him to take shots at? He’s pretty good at that with the bully pulpit,” the aide said.
Another Democratic leadership aide said Monday, “This basically forces us to play a week of defense when we had been on offense for months.”
Lawmakers and aides said Pelosi was angered by Wexler’s freelance policymaking.
A senior Democratic lawmaker said Wexler’s proposal “took him by surprise” and would not be well-received in the caucus.
“[Pelosi] wasn’t pleased. At the same time, she understands that this is a momentary distraction; in the long run it’s pretty meaningless,” a congressional aide said.
Wexler said he did not know if Pelosi was angered by his actions: “I have not talked to Mrs. Pelosi since the end of last week. I did speak with Mr. Hoyer and a number of other leaders, and those are private conversations.”
Told that Hoyer had called his proposal useful, Wexler said, “That was entirely consistent with what he said to me.”
But he disputed the notion that he had run afoul of other party leaders, even as he recognized that not everyone was on the same page on the issue.
“When I spoke to some individual members who are certainly a part of leadership, that’s not the feedback I’ve gotten, or unless they’re not playing it straight with me,” Wexler said.
Aides cautioned that any possible furor surrounding Wexler’s breaking of party ranks would not erupt until later in the week, when lawmakers return to town and begin digesting the impact of Wexler’s gambit.
Wexler’s proposal did not earn a rebuke at this week’s preliminary gathering of House Democrats at the leaders’ lunch yesterday, but aides said there was hardly time for any discussion. Some aides said they expected criticism to be heaped upon Wexler at this morning’s caucus meeting.
It was unclear if Wexler would gain any co-sponsors from among his Democratic colleagues. One lawmaker said, “I may take a look at it. It makes sense to offer something.”
“Even my pastor said the other day, ‘That’s fine, but where’s the Democrats’ plan,’” the lawmaker said.
While recent attention has fallen on Wexler for breaking ranks, Rep. Allan Boyd (D-Fla.) has remained a co-sponsor of Rep. Jim Kolbe’s bipartisan reform bill since signing on last December after former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), the original co-sponsor, was defeated last November.
The Kolbe-Boyd bill includes modest personal retirement accounts and progressive indexing, both of which are in the presi-dent’s plan.
Patrick O’Connor contributed to this report.