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Coalition to Battle Social Security Plan

Seeking to counter an all-out campaign by the White House in support of its proposed overhaul of Social Security, a number of high-powered, predominantly liberal interest groups have banded together to fund a national grass-roots counter-effort run by several former Senate operatives.

Americans United to Protect Social Security, as the group will be known, is being spearheaded by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the AFL-CIO, and two liberal advocacy groups, the Campaign for America’s Future and USAction. Another 200-odd interest groups are also supporting the effort.

The fundraising goal for the campaign is upwards of $40 million. AFSCME has already committed $1 million.

Longtime Democratic campaign operative Steve Hildebrand — who along with fellow operative Paul Tewes will lead the campaign’s strategic planning effort — said the new group is united by a concern that “seniors in this country and future retirees under the Bush plan would incur serious benefit cuts.”

The formation of the new coalition — and the decision to hand its reins to Hildebrand and Tewes — is the latest sign that the fight over Social Security will resemble a big-money, high-profile political campaign along the lines of the 2004 presidential election.

Chuck Loveless, director of legislation at AFSCME, said that “for us to be competitive it is important for us to have a large umbrella coalition. We also are going to run a campaign.”

One senior Senate Democratic aide echoed that sentiment.

“Democrats need a consistent, solid and coordinated operation opposing the president’s plan and the presidential-style campaign he is using to advance it,” the aide said. “To the extent this organization brings that type of focus and energy, it is a very good thing.”

Hildebrand was even more blunt. Republicans, he said, “are already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we are going to beat them.”

Hildebrand and Tewes, both of whom specialize in field work, recently formed a new political consulting firm that will serve as the nerve center of Americans United to Protect Social Security. The firm will be known as Hildebrand Tewes.

In the 2004 cycle, Hildebrand managed the unsuccessful re-election campaign of South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle (D); Tewes served as the political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Hildebrand will be based out of Sioux Falls, S.D., while Tewes will set up shop in Washington, D.C.

Brad Woodhouse, who was communications director for the DSCC in the 2004 cycle and most recently served in that position for New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine (D), will handle the group’s press.

Kim Kauffman, a fundraiser for former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles (D) during his 2002 and 2004 North Carolina Senate bids, will head up fundraising for the coalition.

Former Clinton administration official and new America Coming Together President Harold Ickes will also play a role at the new group.

The coalition will register with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(4) group, meaning that it can accept soft-money checks in unlimited amounts without having to publicly disclose its donors. In exchange, the political activities of such groups are somewhat limited, though they can run issue ads and undertake grass-roots organizing efforts.

Hildebrand said the group “will be involved in every state in the country [with a] combination of ground operations and media in an effort to persuade enough Members of the House and Senate to defeat the Bush proposal.”

In the handful of states that President Bush has visited to promote his plan so far, Americans United to Protect Social Security has organized “response events” to make sure that voters in the state know that significant opposition to the plan exists.

Brian Jones, communications director at the Republican National Committee, questioned how effective the new group will be.

“If these groups are going to take the same head-in-the-sand approach of many Democrats, they certainly won’t be effective,” Jones said. “Simply saying ‘no’ and offering up half-truths and falsehoods isn’t going to advance the Democrats’ cause at all.”

Already a number of pro-reform groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, are massing beneath the banner of a new organization called the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America’s Social Security, which has set a budget of $15 million to $20 million for its campaign. (See related story, page 20.)

CoMPASS’s activities are likely to be a mirror image of those of Americans United to Protect Social Security.

Separately, interest groups on both sides of the issue have already taken to the airwaves.

The pro-overhaul Club for Growth is running ads calling on wavering Republican members — including Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee — to support the Bush plan. The club has set a $10 million budget for its ad campaign., a interest group that’s strongly opposed to the president’s plan, has also run commercials hitting Members for their support of the accounts — an effort that is expected to continue throughout the legislative battle.