GOP fears Bush will triangulate

House Republicans want White House adviser Karl Rove — or better yet, President Bush himself — to resurrect a 2003 promise to avoid “triangulation,” especially on Social Security and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education bill.

House Republicans want White House adviser Karl Rove — or better yet, President Bush himself — to resurrect a 2003 promise to avoid “triangulation,” especially on Social Security and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education bill.

In early 2003, Rove pledged that the president would not triangulate Republicans in Congress, a move-to-the-middle approach once synonymous with the Clinton administration, as Bush geared up for his reelection run.

Rove made the remarks during a PowerPoint presentation at a private retreat for congressional GOP leaders and their aides, a report punctuated with slides bearing the phrases, “triangulation does not work” and “sink or swim together.”

Four years later as they look to their own retreat Jan. 26 and 27, House conservatives, smarting over their November losses, argue that pushing Bush’s agenda in recent years — especially on the Iraq war — helped end their majority. They know what it’s like to oppose the president on an emotionally charged issue such as immigration, a topic they will no doubt revisit this year.

Conservatives are particularly incensed about reports that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. has had private discussions with Democrats on revisiting a Social Security overhaul and may be open to an increase in the current $97,000 limit on personal income subject to the Social Security payroll tax.

When asked directly about a potential Social Security payroll hike, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who chairs the Republican Study Committee, came out swinging.

“We want to believe that the president is committed to the supply-side economics that conservatives value when it comes to Social Security,” Hensarling said. “If he departs from that commitment, that would be something we would strongly oppose.”

Hensarling was referring to Bush’s commitment to payroll tax-funded personal retirement accounts as the best way to overhaul Social Security. Democrats helped kill that initiative last Congress and remain opposed to any effort to privatize accounts. Now that Democrats control Congress, Bush knows it will be tough to push through changes to Social Security unless he can find middle ground with Democrats.

In an interview with wire reporters just before the November elections, Bush said he wanted to start a dialogue with Democrats about renewing efforts to overhaul Social Security.

“I’m willing to listen to anything, but I recognize that it’s going to take a bipartisan approach,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the White House. “And I think it’s going to be very important for people to let — if they are genuinely interesting in going forward — is to not put any preconditions on it.”

Other administration officials more recently have reiterated Bush’s commitment to personal accounts.

“We’re asking all views to come to the table with no preconditions — we’re beginning a search for common ground,” an official said. “That means not taking personal accounts off the table. The president is not a tax increaser; he’s a tax cutter. If Democrats want to put tax increases on the table, that’s their decision.”

White House spokesman Tony Fratto also said the administration is trying to jumpstart talks on making Social Security solvent, stressing the ineffectiveness of “unilaterally taking things off the table.”

“You can be certain that the White House is not going to bring tax increases to the table,” he said. “On personal accounts, that’s how we believe it needs to be accomplished, but we’re not going to tell [Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.)] or others who have ideas” what they can and cannot bring up at a meeting.

When asked if the Bush administration would continue working with Democrats if payroll tax hikes were part of their bill, Fratto declined to comment.

“We want people who are serious about reforming the system to come to the table and bring their best ideas,” he said. “I don’t want to go as far as what we would do on a hypothetical bill. That’s the trap that we want to avoid in getting too far ahead.”

Hensarling visited the White House yesterday and left encouraged after talking to National Economic Council Director Allan Hubbard.

“That being said, [Hensarling] hopes the administration, Democrats, and people serious about preserving Social Security understand that massive tax increases today will only temporarily postpone solvency and are not a true answer or fix to reforming Social Security as American people know it today,” Hensarling spokesman Brad Dayspring said.

House conservatives also are girding for battle over the reauthorization of Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform bill, which must take place this year. Conservatives fought hard back in 2001, openly attacking their GOP leaders for agreeing to what they regarded as an expansion of the federal government and a breach of the 10th Amendment’s guarantee of states’ rights. They are particularly concerned because their own minority leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), was a key author of the bill in 2001 along with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“Whenever you open up a bill, even when you do it for good reason, you give the other side a chance to increase spending for it,” another prominent member of the RSC, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), said.

Democrats and several states have long criticized the bill for failing to provide enough funding to implement the new standards and accountability measures. But Boehner indicated yesterday that Democrats would have to reconcile any proposed increase in NCLB funding with their avowed commitment to fiscal discipline.

“Mr. Boehner has always said that money alone is not the solution to increasing academic achievement,” his spokesman, Brian Kennedy, said. “In fact, the core principals of NCLB — accountability, flexibility, and choice — have proven effective in furthering achievements.”

Boehner acknowledged that funding for the new education mandates has increased “150 percent” since 2001 under GOP control.

“I think the real question is for the Democrats: Having complained so much about certain funding levels, how will they make good on their promises to increase funding and exhibit fiscal restraint at the same time?” Kennedy asked.