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Social Security Critics Slow to Coalesce

When President Bush unveils details about his Social Security overhaul in his State of the Union address this week, he will test the strength and cohesiveness of an opposition that is so far largely uncoordinated.

As the lobbying over the president’s drive to reform the federal retirement program heats up, many of the groups preparing to oppose the president’s effort report only loose coordination, opting instead to mount their own separate efforts.

The powerful AARP seniors’ lobby has led the charge fighting the president’s plan to carve personal investment accounts out of the federal retirement program.

Officials with other groups say that while they have been sharing information with AARP, the seniors lobby is going it alone — and so are they.

The public relations side has so far been more coherent. For starters, the opposition has benefited in recent weeks as key Republican lawmakers have expressed doubts about the idea. Most observers agree that the proposal faces an uphill struggle to win Congressional approval.

A source close to the Campaign for America’s Future, a coalition of 32 labor unions and liberal interest groups, said the State of the Union will mark “the largest coordinated communications effort in recent history on this side of the aisle.”

The source said communications directors for several member groups — including the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, the public-sector union AFSCME and the AFL-CIO — met at the campaign’s Washington offices last week to plan a “war room” to respond to the president’s upcoming address.

“He starts his PR offensive with the State of the Union, and we’ll be right there following it,” said the source, adding that the effort would include a booking operation and real-time rapid response.

However, senior officials with each of those groups said they have not been looped in on that effort.

Chuck Loveless, a top lobbyist with AFSCME, said many of the campaign’s member groups are still “working to put together an effective lobbying coalition.”

“I think it’s safe to say we’ll be rolling out a major coalition to oppose the president’s plan soon,” he said. “Right now it’s a question of putting together a budget, a structure that works, and it’s a question of who’s going to contribute what.”

Meanwhile, AFSCME is working on its own to mount an “aggressive field operation.”

He said the organization is hiring staff to pressure centrist Members of Congress in 15 states.

The AFL-CIO, another Campaign for America’s Future member, tried a new approach this week in its effort to oppose the Social Security overhaul. Instead of criticizing the president’s plan, they directly engaged interests who would benefit from an overhaul, protesting in the financial districts of Boston and San Francisco and arguing financial services firms should not be entrusted with private savings accounts.

A key component of President Bush’s plan would allow workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private accounts, which financial services companies would presumably help invest in the stock market.

Gerald Shea, a top lobbyist with the AFL-CIO, said his group’s Washington headquarters helped coordinate the demonstrations, but protesters on site came up with the slogan to chant: “Don’t pick our pockets to line yours.”

Many of the financial services firms the group is targeting already manage pension accounts for organized labor, and AFL-CIO leaders warned the firms in a December letter to stay out of the Social Security debate or risk losing their business.

“We have no intention of letting any of these companies get away with this while they manage our workers’ funds,” said Shea, who noted that union pressure succeeded in sidelining financial services companies when some tried to back private accounts in 2001.

Indeed, this time around, executives of many financial services firms have stayed mum on Social Security, with some saying they fear a public-relations backlash if they are heard voicing support for a reform that could send billions in administrative fees their way.

Still, Wall Street’s trade group, the Securities Industry Association, has taken a role in the debate by signing up with the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, a coalition with close White House ties that is currently organizing business interests to push for the president’s plan.

Shea said that next month the AFL-CIO’s Washington staff will try to meet with every Member of Congress to discuss the Social Security reform, while they organize a “formal presence” at lawmakers’ town hall meetings during the February recess.

The NAACP is also planning sit-downs in every Member office as they prepare to ask their own rank-and-file activists to mobilize and contact their representatives.

While the NAACP is a member of the Campaign for America’s Future, they, too, are going ahead mostly on their own.

“No one coordinates our work but us,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the group’s Washington bureau. “We all have very different constituencies, so we come at it from a different place.”

Former Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), director of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which also opposes privatization efforts, said organizations like hers have to rely on their grass-roots strength, because they cannot hope to match the dollar power of the president’s backers.

A possible bump in the road for critics came in late January, when word leaked that thousands of people in key Congressional districts said they received anonymous automated phone calls accusing their Representatives of trying to damage Social Security by supporting personal accounts.

Recipients of the call were then directed to call their Members.

No group stepped forward to claim responsibility for the calls, and outraged Republicans on the Hill accused the effort’s sponsors of mounting a “tele-scare” campaign.

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