Forces aligned on both sides of the Social Security reform fight are planning a two-week public relations onslaught to keep the pressure on undecided Members of Congress.
Progress for America, a leading pro-reform group, will spend $1 million on television ads that will run for roughly two weeks in more than two dozen House districts represented by Republicans who have yet to endorse President Bush’s approach to the issue. The ads will seek to build support for the idea of private investment accounts.
Not to be outdone, Americans United to Protect Social Security has recruited a handful of anti-reform Members to hold town halls in the districts of their colleagues who remain on the fence about the issue.
Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) is one of those volunteers, although she said Wednesday that no specific event had yet been scheduled.
“I will go wherever I am invited,” said DeLauro. “There’s no opportunity to let up on this issue. It’s important for the public to understand what’s at stake.”
On that point, the two sides agree.
In the previous Congressional recess, which fell in late February, both Republican and Democratic Members hosted town hall meetings to gauge their constituents’ views on the issues.
The press coverage of those gatherings was largely negative, portraying voters — especially retirees or those near retirement — as skeptical of any plan to fiddle with Social Security.
Supporters of reform, led by the Republican National Committee and outside groups like PFA and Generations Together, claimed victory by portraying the fight to change Social Security as first and foremost an educational effort that was proceeding apace.
Bush and other administration officials are in the midst of a 60-day, 60-event marathon to sell the president’s plan — a tour that will dovetail with Congress’ spring recess.
Stuart Roy, a spokesman for PFA, said the group’s recess efforts are an attempt to “echo what the president has said about Social Security being in need of a major fix.”
All 28 House districts where PFA has bought ad time are held by Republicans, many of whom are yet to take a firm position on creating private investment accounts within Social Security.
The list includes three Floridians — Reps. Ginny Brown-Waite, Mark Foley and Clay Shaw — as well as two Members each from Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington state.
On the Senate side, PFA is targeting a bipartisan group that includes Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).
In addition, PFA plans to spend $300,000 on radio advertisements during the recess.
The PFA buys supplement a $2 million national cable buy the group launched on March 7.
“When Congress was in session, that is when our national cable buy was at its height,” explained Roy. “When they return home they need to hear from constituents and see it on local television.”
Americans United is focusing its efforts locally as well, trying to use grass-roots organizing to increase the pressure on Members who have so far remained silent about Bush’s plan.
The group expects to sponsor 30 events in states and Congressional districts throughout the country over the recess; the largest events will be town halls hosted by Democratic Members opposed to Bush’s proposals in areas represented by wavering colleagues.
In addition to DeLauro, Reps. Betty McCollum (Minn.), Kendrick Meek (Fla.) and Sander Levin (Mich.) have agreed to host these town halls.
Levin, the ranking member on Ways and Means, called the town hall strategy “an effort by the support groups to spread the net of information.”
“Most of us have held meetings in our own districts, and the thought was, ‘Let’s hold town hall meetings in districts held by Republicans,’” Levin said. “We feel we’ve given our constituents a chance to express themselves, and we’d like to have others in other districts get a chance to speak out.”
Officials with Americans United would not release the list of Members they would target.
“Just like the last recess we are going to harness the grass-roots energy that is out there that is opposed to the privatization scheme,” said Americans United spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “We will make any Member that is pro-privatization or wavering on the issue feel the heat of that grass-roots energy.”