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Democrats to Talk Up Social Security

House Democratic leaders are kicking off a major offensive on Social Security reform, instructing Members on Wednesday to hold forums, write letters and mount a message campaign in the coming weeks against Republican attempts to privatize the program.

Democratic leaders hope to impress upon voters at the outset of the debate that they want to protect Social Security. In doing so, they hope to avoid a repeat of the battle in the previous Congress over Medicare reform, in which they felt the GOP succeeded in stripping them of one of their core issues. Democrats also believe Republicans confused Americans about the Medicare changes, and want to avoid a similar problem with Social Security.

“We’re really gearing up to fight back,” said one Democratic leadership aide.

Leaders this week instructed their rank-and-file Members to hold at least one town-hall meeting in the month of February, reach out to the press and send out a newsletter on the topic to their constituents. They armed Members with Social Security information packets that included talking points, sample editorials and other materials on the topic.

“We need to act in a timely fashion,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “We need to make sure the American public can make the correct decisions and is educated about the facts.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee are also coordinating with Member offices to ensure a rapid response to Republicans’ message and proposals.

“House Democrats are focused and united on making sure people know the facts about the Republicans’ proposal and its impact on Americans,” said Jennifer Crider, Pelosi’s spokeswoman.

Democrats have long pushed to keep Social Security intact and argued against any privatization of it. To get that message across, they plan to hold events at senior centers and at 100 of the country’s largest college campuses.

“We think there is a high level of energy” among Democrats on this, said Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.). “We think we will get a good result and create an echo chamber across the country.”

Menendez said Democrats have learned from past experiences such as Medicare reform that they must “react rapidly” when the administration and Republicans move to make changes to programs which they have fought to keep intact.

“This goes beyond politics,” Menendez said. “It goes to the fundamental belief Democrats have that every American has a baseline of support in this country. We’re not going to let the Republicans put that security in danger.”

The Bush administration has set Social Security reform as its top priority, and will likely lay out a strong case for change when President Bush addresses the nation during his Feb. 2 State of the Union address.

“It’s very important we are in the same news cycle, if you will, whether it’s [within] a day or a week or a month,” Hoyer said. “It is important that we are putting forth the facts as we believe them to be and as we think they are with respect to the status of Social Security.”

Democrats will argue that potential changes could bring “risky accounts” that lead to benefit cuts. They also will tell voters that while Social Security faces problems, it is not in crisis, and there is time to fix it. Finally, Democrats will talk about how this is not the time to privatize Social Security with deficits rising and the federal budget in a pinch.

“We have got to hammer that home,” said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.).

The Democrats’ aggressiveness on Social Security is due, at least in part, to a recent survey conducted by Geoff Garin of Garin-Hart-Yang Research, a leading Democratic polling firm.

In meetings with senior House and Senate Democratic Members and staffers over the past week, Garin emphasized that the party “ought to be playing offense” on the issue, emphasizing the “peril is real” for the president, according to sources that attended the gathering.

A memo written by Garin calls Social Security reform an “electoral loser for congressional Republicans.”

“Second term presidents operate with very different time horizons than do Senators and members of Congress,” Garin wrote. “After re-election a president can look to posterity — never having to be accountable to the voters again. But Senator and representatives cannot afford to ignore the concerns and interests of voters back home.”

Garin’s point is particularly salient given the historic struggles of a president’s party in the second midterm election of his presidency.

In the five “six-year itch” elections since World War II, the president’s party has lost an average of 29 House seats and six Senate seats. Losses of that proportion in 2006 would restore Democrats to the majority in both chambers.

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