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Reform Debate Unites Minority

When Democratic leaders persuaded all but one of their colleagues to publicly state their opposition to President Bush’s proposal to retool Social Security in February, it marked a major victory for a minority party still reeling from its losses in November.

Party strategists said Democratic leaders realized in the days following the elections that they needed to show unity on a major domestic issue early in the 109th Congress. It quickly became clear, several Democrats said, that Bush’s idea to overhaul Social Security would become that rallying point.

A letter stating resistance to Bush’s call to change was circulated among Democratic Senators, and when party leaders released it on Feb. 3, 44 of 45 members of the Democratic Caucus signed it. Only Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) declined to endorse the letter, stating that he wanted to see Bush’s plan before taking a position.

“The president’s active approach to take apart Social Security really has energized our Caucus,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.).

The number 44 was noteworthy as it also provided the first test of whether Democrats could sustain a filibuster if it came to that. Had Democratic leaders failed to convince at least 41 of their colleagues to sign the letter it likely would have given Bush’s plan a boost.

Some Democrats credit this show of solidarity as one reason skepticism is growing about Bush’s idea to divert a portion of Social Security into private investment accounts.

“The 44 signatures on that letter was significant,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “It allowed our party to speak with one voice. Now enough doubts have been raised and that is why the plan is starting to implode.”

Last week, Democrats sent another letter to Bush asking him to “to publicly and unambiguously announce that you reject privatized accounts.”

“Such a statement would eliminate a serious obstacle to the kind of bipartisan process that Democrats are seeking to deal with Social Security’s long-term challenges and to improve the retirement security of all Americans,” 42 Democratic Senators wrote Bush. Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Nelson did not sign the letter.

Achieving true unity required Reid to empower colleagues to help craft the political and policy strategies, as well as to create an organizational structure to manage both the internal and external campaigns, Senators, aides and strategists said in interviews last week.

Reid turned to Sen. Max Baucus and told the Montana Democrat he was going to be “the quarterback on the issue,” began parceling out responsibilities to his leadership team and created nine working groups to handle different aspects of the debate.

Many Capitol Hill insiders were surprised when Reid entrusted Baucus with so much responsibility, a nod of confidence the Montanan rarely received from then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

“I credit Sen. Reid,” Baucus said. “Sen. Reid said we’ve got committees and committee staff for this work.”

While much has been made in recent months about Reid’s communications “war room” in the Capitol, the nerve center for Democrats on this issue is in Baucus’ office on the fifth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building.

Overseeing the effort is Baucus Chief of Staff Jim Messina, a former aide and political operative who most recently worked for Dorgan and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) in his failed bid to defeat Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in 2004.

Now each week, a series of concurrent meetings are taking place in Baucus’ office, across the hall in the Democratic Policy Committee and in Reid’s Capitol suite located steps away from the Senate floor.

Staffers for the nine Senators chairing the working groups meet once a week to discuss strategy, and these Senators later sit down with Reid and Baucus to follow up on those discussions. While more than 20 representatives of liberal interest groups meet with Messina and Dana Singiser, staff director of the Steering and Outreach Committee, Dorgan works with DPC staffers and former Internet executive and marketing guru Richard Yanowitch on language and messaging.

In addition, there are the meetings with Americans United to Protect Social Security, a 501(c)(4) group born from discussions between union heads and Congressional Democrats.

“There have been more meetings involving this office by far than any other issue we have had to handle,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman. “There is such a clear focus and attention to try and respond to the president’s effort to privatize Social Security.”

Democrats return to Capitol Hill this week, after taking their first barnstorming tour across the country to gin up opposition to Bush’s proposal.

“In all my years in the Senate, this is the first time we have been so united on an issue,” said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

And it is this unity that appears to have given the Democratic base a spark at a time when they are seeking an issue to coalesce behind.

“We will be working with Members until the final nail is put in the coffin of privatization,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United to Protect Social Security.

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