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W.H. Liaison Unfazed by Social Security

Barely two days after Candida “Candi” Wolff arrived for her first day of work at the White House, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared that Democrats had the votes to block the central element of President Bush’s Social Security plan.

It was not exactly the welcome the new Congressional liaison might have wanted, given that an overhaul of Social Security, the president’s top priority, is likely to dominate her agenda for the foreseeable future.

Yet this was Wolff’s starting point. Democrats, bolstered by strong backing from the seniors lobby, had solidified their opposition to personal savings accounts, Bush’s key proposal for Social Security. Meanwhile, the GOP majorities in both chambers started to look skittish in their support of the president, unsure of how Bush’s vision will ultimately play with voters.

Nevertheless, Wolff, in an interview last week, said she believes the landscape for Social Security looks promising. Although polls have shown opposition to the president’s plan, Wolff points out that they also have shown a recognition that there is a problem with the program that needs to be fixed.

“It’s not clear to me, and it certainly hasn’t been clear to the president, that this is actually [not] a good issue,” Wolff said. “If we’re all admitting there’s a problem, then [the issue becomes], ‘Where is the solution to that problem?’”

The world of solutions is something of a comfort zone for Wolff. A dual major in mathematics and political science during college, she initially came to Washington, D.C., as a tax specialist with powerhouse law and lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld.

Her love of politics, which competes equally for her affection with her love of policy, led naturally from there to the Senate. Wolff went to work for then-Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) at the Steering Committee, jumping to the Policy Committee when Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) took over the chairmanship in 1996.

“She could do all our budget and tax stuff in her sleep,” recalls Jade West, Wolff’s mentor at both committees.

West said Wolff’s political acumen was just as sharp. “She knows how to read people, knows how to work people, knows how to pay attention — which is a critical skill when you’re working with Members of the House and Senate,” West said.

In 2001, Wolff moved from the policy committee to join incoming Vice President Cheney’s Congressional liaison staff. She soon became the vice president’s top lobbyist.

“She has an immense store of knowledge, both about the personalities, but also about the procedures,” said Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff. “And she is one of our leading experts on the Senate rules.”

Libby noted that the president’s and vice president’s staffs have been well-integrated through the duration of the Bush administration, and suggested that Wolff will likely adjust quickly to her new role.

“She’s had an opportunity to view this job she’s taken now from multiple angles over the course of a number of years,” Libby said.

West, who indicated that she has bumped into Wolff on Capitol Hill a couple of times in recent weeks, said that “if she is having a tough time at the moment, it doesn’t show. She is calmly confident, she is relaxed — probably more relaxed than I would have expected her to be.”

The Bush administration’s strategy on Social Security, at least in the early rounds, has been to build a case for change with the public before banging on doors around the Capitol.

The president and other top officials have traveled the country in recent weeks to tout the administration’s basic plan (though no actual proposal has been put on the table).

The administration’s hope is that the public, recognizing the “crisis” that exists, will turn around and put pressure on their lawmakers to make changes.

Yet if ambitious changes to Social Security are ultimately going to pass, no one in the administration or Congress expects the margin to be resounding.

Howard Paster, the first Hill liaison to then-President Bill Clinton, likened Wolff’s challenge on Social Security to the one he faced in trying to sell Clinton’s controversial economic plan to Congress in 1993.

In that instance, the White House won the battle the only way it could: by minimizing defections among nervous Democrats, who at the time controlled both chambers of Congress. In the end, Clinton won Congressional backing by a single vote.

Wolff will need to help Bush do much the same with the Republicans, while bringing across enough Senate Democrats to block a filibuster. In so doing, it will become critical for her to find ways to provide wavering lawmakers with the political cover they need to cast a tough vote, Paster said.

“But at the end of the day,” he added, citing the recent opinion polls, “you can’t sell that which is not politically viable.”

Indeed, sometimes no amount of political cover is sufficient. Partly because of the votes Democrats cast for Clinton’s economic plan, the party went on to get trounced in the 1994 mid-term elections.

Wolff acknowledged that lawmakers have traditionally been wary of tinkering with Social Security, but she believes that the rise of the so-called investor class has led to a greater recognition of flaws within the program that need to be fixed.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily presumed anymore that if you’re discussing Social Security you’re going to lose politically,” Wolff said.

But if the White House fails to win over voters, the pressure brought to bear by President Bush and other top administration officials could wind up alienating Senators — both Democratic and Republican — whom the president will need for votes on other matters, such as judicial nominations.

Wolff said the Congressional liaison office has been organizing trips for House Members to the White House for Social Security discussions with Bush. The groups have generally been kept at seven to 15 Members, so that the sit-downs don’t “get too unwieldy.”

Returning to the Bush administration after a year away on K Street with the firm Washington Council Ernst & Young “was an opportunity that was hard to pass up,” Wolff said, in spite of the fact that her K Street sojourn enabled her to spend far more time with her husband and two young children.

“There is a burn-out rate,” Wolff acknowledged, citing the long, exhausting hours that the liaison job requires. “I think I was able to accept the job because I did actually take a year off. Barring that, I don’t know whether I would be mentally able to do the task.”

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