But Rove and Hubbard offered the audience potentially conflicting views on the controversial question of whether or not to raise the cap on payroll taxes.
Attendees included representatives from the 60-Plus Association, a conservative advocacy group for seniors, and CoMPASS, the K Street coalition pushing for Social Security reform, as well as America’s Community Bankers, the National Retail Federation and the Mortgage Bankers Association.
At the meeting, which at least three attendees described as a “rah-rah” cheerleading session, Rove, Hubbard and Barry Jackson, a special assistant to the president who is handling Social Security reform for the White House, made brief remarks about the state of the fight and fielded questions from the invited guests.
Rove, who was introduced by Jackson, said AARP and the AFL-CIO are “fueled and energized” against the president’s reform plans. He thanked administration allies for helping to push the plan with the public and members of Congress and pressed those in attendance to keep reaching out to lawmakers.
But the administration officials declined to comment on any specifics of reform. According to some attendees, one questioner asked about recent reports that the president would consider raising the cap on payroll taxes — currently set at $90,000 — to which Rove replied that “everything is on the table,” echoing a now-familiar refrain.
In response to a question about the reluctance of congressional Republicans to take up reform, Hubbard said his conversations with GOP members and staff had been positive and mentioned that some members were embarrassed by reports that they had rejected the president’s plan. In particular, he mentioned Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, who reportedly questioned the president’s proposal to divert payroll taxes from current beneficiaries in order to create private accounts. McCrery later backed away from those statements.
During the meeting, Hubbard reiterated the president’s four reform principles: ensuring a permanent fix, keeping the system unchanged for anyone born before 1950, including personal savings accounts and not increasing payroll taxes.
Some lobbyists in attendance, though, were hoping to hear more details of the plan.
“We’ve always worked closely with the administration [on Social Security reform], but we need to see more details of what the plan will be,” a spokesman for one lobbyist in attendance said.
Rove said Bush had been committed to some measure of reform since his first presidential campaign and mentioned it regularly during the last election.
The meeting came at the back end of a hard week for congressional Republicans, who received mixed signals from their constituents during town-hall meetings across the country.
Despite those mixed reviews, Rove, Hubbard and Jackson reassured lobbyists — who will be a key component of the administration’s success or failure, particularly within the Beltway — that Bush will continue pushing hard on Social Security reform. One participant said the White House was expected to make another appeal in the coming weeks.
In an effort to counter aggressive grassroots campaigns against the White House plan, CoMPASS organized 3,000-plus volunteers last week to attend 50 town-hall meetings in 20 states to support congressional Republicans as they worked to sell the president’s plan. The group is planning an even more aggressive drive during the March recess, said Tita Freeman, a spokeswoman for the Business Roundtable, which has taken the lead within CoMPASS.
Through a spokesman, Jim Martin, president of 60-Plus, confirmed that he was at the meeting and said he was encouraged that Bush would follow through on reform after so many previous administrations had “kicked the can” on the issue.
AARP last week ran ads in newspapers across the country asking voters to call their congressional representatives, listing a toll-free phone number to place the call. The ads generated 10,000 phone calls in Pennsylvania alone, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
CoMPASS is hoping to recruit more than 100,000 volunteers to attend future town-hall meetings through its “Generations Together” outreach effort and was expected eventually to spend $20 million pushing for reform. “Generations Together” made its first national appearance during the president’s trip to New Hampshire two weeks ago, when he made the controversial comments to local newspaper reporters about raising the cap on payroll taxes.