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Snow Leaves for Three-State Tour to Push Social Security Overhaul

Seeking to build public support for Social Security reform, Treasury Secretary John Snow left Wednesday on the first leg of a week-long fly-around intended to put pressure on three lawmakers likely to be critical to the Bush administration’s prospects for success.

Snow will go to Florida for events on Thursday and Friday, followed by Arkansas next week. Florida will play host to a key Senate contest in 2006, as first-term Democrat Bill Nelson (Fla.) faces a potentially tough re-election race.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) isn’t up again until 2010, but she too is a moderate who’s being heavily courted by the Bush White House to buck her party leadership on Social Security.

Snow closes out the trip next week in Louisiana, the home state of Rep. Jim McCrery (R), who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. McCrery has expressed trepidation about moving forward with the administration’s plans, which include the creation of personal investment accounts for future retirees.

In a meeting with reporters before he departed, Snow said, “We’re going to hit this thing hard. We’re going to get the facts out.”

The Bush administration believes that its success in enacting changes to the New Deal entitlement will depend in large measure on whether voters believe President Bush’s case for urgency — and press lawmakers to act.

Snow, echoing others in the administration and the Congressional GOP leadership, cited polls suggesting growing public agreement that Social Security has long-term problems.

“We have an obligation to take this issue to the people,” Snow said.

But Snow also appeared to back off slightly from previously adamant administration assertions that the retirement program is in “crisis,” telling reporters, “I’m not going to get into the semantics” of how the problem is labeled.

Instead, Snow cited President Bill Clinton’s contention seven years ago that Social Security faces a “looming crisis.” The secretary stressed that the longer structural problems in the program are left to fester, the more draconian the solutions will likely have to be.

Democrats believe that administration claims of a crisis in the retirement program have given them an opening to block the president’s plans — if they can convince voters that the problem is too far off to be urgent.

While projections indicate that Social Security will begin facing serious demographic problems within the next decade and a half, the same estimates say outflow from the program will probably not begin to exceed inflow from payroll taxes until around 2045.

So far, the Democrats have found some success in arguing that no crisis currently exists in the retirement program. At the very least, they have been able to brush off Republican challenges to come forward with their own plan: The chilly reception the administration’s proposals have received from some Congressional Republicans suggest that even many of Bush’s allies on the Hill are not yet convinced that the crisis argument has passed a tipping point.

With little discernible progress on Capitol Hill so far, Snow signaled some frustration as he called for “dialogue” on the issue.

“We’re looking for a dialogue — not a monologue, but a dialogue,” Snow said.

Snow is slated to headline chamber of commerce meetings in Tampa and Jacksonville on Thursday and Friday, respectively. A spokeswoman for the secretary said that venues have not yet been chosen for next week’s events in Arkansas and Louisiana.

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