With President Bush resolved to reform Social Security, a number of House Republicans — particularly in Florida — could face a difficult choice between supporting their party and heeding the wishes of large numbers of senior citizens in their districts.
Of the 10 Congressional districts with the highest percentage of Social Security beneficiaries, seven are held by Republicans; five of those seven are in the Sunshine State.
Broadening the sample somewhat, approximately two-thirds of the 25 districts with the highest percentage of people on Social Security are currently held by Republicans, according to calculations done by TechPolitics, an Internet research site.
That demographic reality provides a potential hurdle for the president as he stumps the country urging wavering lawmakers to back his plan and convince their constituents of the need for change in the system.
Poll after poll has shown that despite Bush’s pledge not to cut any benefits for current retirees or those fast approaching retirement, seniors remain the most skeptical of the reform efforts.
Sensing an opportunity to potentially expand the playing field for 2006, national Democrats have begun to pound away on these Members and have already launched attacks on 27 Republicans representing potentially competitive districts.
“The Republicans have elevated this issue in a way that it hasn’t been elevated in several cycles,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Greg Speed. “It’s not going away.”
Carl Forti, Speed’s counterpart at the National Republican Congressional Committee, said his organization is “counseling everyone to go and talk about the problem regardless of the number of seniors in their districts.
“This is a problem that everyone is going to be affected by,” Forti said.
Florida Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) stands at the crossroads of rhetoric and raw numbers.
In order to pass his plan Bush must convince Members like Brown-Waite that supporting an overhaul of the retirement program will not doom their chances of winning re-election.
Nearly half of the voting age population of her 5th district, which runs north of Tampa and hugs the Sunshine State’s Gulf coast, is made up of Social Security beneficiaries; she represents more recipients of retirement benefits than reside in 11 other states combined.
Brown-Waite acknowledged that handling the issue is “more difficult” due to the elderly population in her district.
“About 25 percent of my Social Security constituents recognize that their children and grandchildren need a totally new system,” she said. “Realizing it, and also realizing what the cost is going to be to switch over, is a huge hill to climb over.”
Transition costs to move to personal accounts within Social Security — the centerpiece of the Bush plan — have been estimated between $1 and $2 trillion.
Brown-Waite has largely adopted a wait-and-see approach to the bill, arguing that it is “too early to tell” what will be in the final legislation.
Following the playbook provided by the NRCC to its candidates over the past two cycles, Brown-Waite has pledged to oppose any plan that raises the retirement age or alters the benefits of near or current retirees.
Brown-Waite, in fact, introduced a bill in early January that would make it out of order for the House to consider legislation that would reduce benefits for those 65 or older.
“Social Security should not be a political issue,” said Brown-Waite.
Democrats disagree, and are about to begin what will be a two-year long assault on Brown-Waite’s position on the issue aimed at weakening her re-election prospects.
Brown-Waite sits in a district that up until 2002 had been held by Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman. Brown-Waite narrowly ousted Thurman in a 48 percent to 46 percent contest that year thanks to a district redrawn by the Republican legislature to benefit the GOP.
This week the DCCC will distribute a 2002 Brown-Waite commercial in which she said she opposes any privatization of the Social Security system to the media and Democratic activists in Florida.
She has also been the subject of anonymous automated phone calls to her constituents making the same point.
Brown-Waite said it is “too early to tell” whether Social Security will be a potent political issue for either side in 2006.
“It depends what the final bill is,” she said.
To the south of Brown-Waite’s seat lies the 13th district of Rep. Katherine Harris (R) — another potential battleground in the Social Security fight.
One-third of the voting age population in Harris’ district receive Social Security benefits, the fourth highest percentage in the country.
For Harris, this presents a quandary on two levels, as she continues to contemplate a Senate bid in a state where roughly one-fifth of the population are retirees while also entertaining the possibility of running for a third term in her district.
“There is no doubt Social Security will be an issue in the next race,” Harris said Friday. “I feel like I am on the side of the righteous.”
Harris has taken no hard and fast position on Social Security reform but does believe the system is “in crisis.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Harris’ likely opponent if she seeks a promotion, has taken a hardline stance in opposition to any significant changes to the system, while Toni Jennings, a Democrat who lost in the 13th district primary last cycle and has declared her intention to run again, is planning to focus on the Social Security issue.
Harris called the Democrats “intellectually dishonest.”
“We were not sent up here to do the easy stuff,” she said. “We need to try and solve it.”
Harris was careful, however, to add that she “can’t say I am 1,000 percent” behind the Bush plan because of concerns about the transition costs.
“Until I know what the ultimate solution is I can’t concur or disagree,” Harris said.
While the potential problem is centered in Florida there are several other GOP Members outside of the Sunshine State who could also be affected by the ultimate shape of a Social Security reform bill.
Leading that list is Rep. Charles Taylor (R), a perennial Democratic target in his western North Carolina 11th district.
Taylor has 151,000 seniors in his district who receive payouts from Social Security, approximately 29.5 percent of the voting age population.
Though Taylor’s seat tilts strongly toward Republicans, he has repeatedly faced serious Democratic challenges.
In 2004 he defeated a Democratic state Senator with 55 percent of the vote.
Taylor has said the system needs to change in order to remain functional beyond the next few decades but has offered few judgments on the specifics of the kind of plan he would support. He has said he opposes any attempt to privatize the system. Taylor did not return a call seeking comment.
Other Republicans who may find themselves targeted on Social Security due to the large number of seniors in their districts include Reps. Jim Saxton (N.J.), Bill Young (Fla.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.).
Even some seemingly safe Members such as Foley, whose 16th district has the third highest percentage of seniors on Social Security in the nation, are mindful of the political implications of the issue.
“Because it’s one of those that is going play out in the crosscurrents back and forth he is keeping his options open,” said Foley spokesman Jason Kello.