Centrists steer clear of Social Security plans

A group of Senate Democratic and Republican centrists is maintaining a comfortable distance from controversial White House efforts to reform Social Security — even as the chamber emerges as the place where President Bush’s Social Security proposals will be forged.

“There is a sense that no one really wants to stick their head out at this point in time for fear they’re going to have their head cut off,” one Senate Republican aide said.

“It is a nonstarter among the overwhelming majority of Democrats, with very few exceptions,” said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow with the Democratic Leadership Council.

Congressional observers say that for the president to succeed he will have to court a handful of key lawmakers who might signal interest in reaching an accommodation.

One likely target is Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who supported the president’s 2001 tax cut and is up for reelection this year. Bush tapped Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R), who had been considering a challenge to Nelson, to be his agriculture secretary after Nelson said he wasn’t interested in the job.

“A bipartisan beachhead can only be established in the Senate, given what I hear and see,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Nelson endorsed his party’s wait-and-see Social Security strategy while saying he was developing legislation to include private accounts “over and above” Social Security. “I don’t want to reject something,” he said. “I just want to listen to something.”

Sources also point to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) as someone who might reach an accommodation with the president on the issue. The White House’s most reliable Democratic vote, Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.), has retired, as has Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), one of the chamber’s most notable dealmakers.

But so far there are signs that Republicans will have trouble holding their own ranks together in both chambers. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a Finance Committee member who played a key role in tax-cut negotiations in the last Congress, has steered clear of statements that would put her in the forefront of the Social Security debate. Snowe is up for reelection this cycle and could be a top Democratic target.

“People recognize increasingly that this is a problem,” she said last week. “America’s a nation of fixers.” But when asked specific questions about strategy, she replied, “I’m not going to get into that now.”

“Members are beginning to understand there’s a real price to pay with privatization,” said former Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), who heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “If the president sees this as his first priority, then put a plan on the table and let us see it.”

Democratic sources said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, who supported Medicare reform in the last Congress, has told Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that he will not work on any “third way” approaches until the president unveils his own plan. Sources said Baucus has made his view known in speeches to the Democratic caucus.

“The better part of valor [would be] for the administration to present their proposal. Let us read it and understand it,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has worked with the administration on class-action reform.

But Carper, who counts himself a member of a bipartisan “Third Way” group, said, “I don’t rule out at some point having private accounts.” Carper said those accounts must be part of a plan that doesn’t add trillions to the national debt or “undermine” Social Security in any way.

Asked about Baucus’s agreeing to hold off on cutting a deal with the administration, Carper said, “I don’t think any Democrat’s going to go there.”

Still, many Democrats expressed skepticism about the administration’s 2001 tax cut and the Medicare reform bill of 2003. But in the end, a dozen Democrats backed the tax cut, while 11 Democrats and Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) backed the Medicare conference report.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he wants to try to develop a proposal within his committee by working with Baucus and other Democrats.

“There are some senators in both parties that want nothing to do with this, wish it would go away,” said Graham, who organized a bipartisan meeting with senators last week to talk about his reform plan, which includes among its options a potential increase in payroll taxes. “There’s more people like me than I thought.”

“My belief is the president needs to educate the public, and challenge the public,” Graham said. But “if he comes out with a specific, detailed plan, we just throw rocks at him.”

Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said the president “looks forward to working with all members who want to reach back … and work together in a constructive way.”

“Republicans need moderate Democrats to be a part of this process to get cover,” the Senate GOP aide said. “If there are no Democrats who are going to come across here, you may have some revolt within the Republicans.”

Democratic sources said House Democrats will follow an approach that is equally cohesive. When Bush gave a speech on Social Security yesterday, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) accused the president of “hyping a crisis.” Pomeroy was one of only 16 House Democrats to vote for the Medicare bill of 2003.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) has decided to exercise his seniority and take over the ranking slot on the Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, giving up the Trade Subcommittee. Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who worked closely with Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on pension issues, had been a contender for the seat after the death of Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), who held the position.