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Bush Seeks to Rally Hill GOP

The Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress will make a renewed push in the next month to coordinate their campaigns to overhaul Social Security, even as they try to control the damage caused by prominent Republicans expressing doubt that a bill will be approved by Congress this year.

“We’re looking at putting all the bells and whistles on the Social Security message train,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who himself appeared to be off message last week when he said a Social Security overhaul, including private accounts, may not be possible until next spring.

Indeed, getting nervous Republican Members to publicly support the White House’s proposal is a key goal of the campaign, which begins this week with high-profile House and Senate press conferences and a staged Senate floor debate between Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s important that Republican leaders on the Hill and in the White House show Members that they’re very serious when it comes to communicating the message on Social Security,” said Bonjean. “It shows the seriousness that our leaders have toward reforming Social Security by pounding home our message on a weekly basis.”

Republican spindoctors in Congress hope that all the planned events over the next month will complement the president’s own 60-day speaking tour. Bush reached his 30-day midpoint on Friday.

Congressional Democrats, for their part, are unlikely to let the Republican PR campaign go unanswered and uncriticized. Already during the two-week recess, Democrats held town hall meetings in Republican districts and have been working with Democratic-leaning interest groups to find dissenters to attend GOP town hall meetings.

“All the coordination in the world isn’t going to help the fact that they’ve got a fatally flawed plan that most Americans disagree with,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Meanwhile, House and Senate GOP leaders have been trying to tamp down the appearance that they lack the political will to bring a Social Security overhaul to the floors of their chambers this year.

Bonjean said Hastert’s comments in a recent National Journal interview were taken out of context when the magazine quoted Hastert as contradicting the president’s assertion that a bill needs to be passed this year. Hastert implied that 2006 election considerations would make it impossible to consider a Social Security bill after the spring of 2006.

“The Speaker wants to get Social Security done by the end of this year,” said Bonjean. “It’s not like he’s doubtful we can get it done this year.”

But Hastert’s comments still gave off the appearance that there is high-level dissension within the Congressional Republican ranks, especially with his remarks coming on the heels of a statement by Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that he did not believe he would be able to deliver a Social Security rewrite to the president’s desk in this Congress.

“I think it’s very difficult for me to say today that we’ll present a bill to the president,” Grassley said March 25, according to published reports.

But at an appearance with Bush on March 30 in Iowa, Grassley backtracked somewhat, saying, “I’m prepared to make this an issue in the committee that I chair this summer, and I hope the president is able to convince enough people around the country to bring so much pressure on Congress to get the job done.”

One Bush administration official blamed the apparent inconsistencies of Hastert and Grassley on a “hypersensitivity on the part of the media looking for cracks between the House and the Senate, looking for cracks between the Hill and the administration” on the Social Security issue.

The Bush administration aide said that coordination between the House and Senate GOP leadership and the White House is the key to convincing the American people to embrace Bush’s proposal, which would allow workers younger than 55 divert some of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts.

Because the White House and Congressional leaders believe they have already accomplished their first goal — convincing the American public that Social Security must be fixed before it becomes insolvent in 2041 — the next phase of the PR offensive includes talking about the need for a permanent fix to Social Security and the advantages of personal investment accounts for younger workers, while reassuring current Social Security beneficiaries that they will not see any change in the monthly Social Security checks.

Events this week include a Thursday House GOP leadership press conference, a Tuesday Senate GOP press conference on town hall meetings conducted over the recess, and a presidential visit to the warehouse in West Virginia where papers detailing Social Security’s debt are held, House and Senate GOP leadership aides said.

House Republican Conference spokeswoman Anne Buresh said the leadership has already begun to receive initial reports about Members’ recess Social Security events. The Conference will spend this week gathering more feedback before deciding whether to alter its message efforts.

“We will always be doing a regrouping and a reshaping of our message and tactics,” said Buresh. “It’s a constant process of what’s working and not working.”

During the previous Congressional recess in late February, Republican lawmakers were often besieged during their district town hall meetings by opponents of the president’s Social Security plan. That opposition was prominently featured in much of the local media coverage of those recess events.

Before this recess, the House GOP Conference advised Members not to feel trapped by the need to hold only town-meeting style events. Lawmakers were also encouraged to do more interviews with local television and newspapers and to send out more franked mail on the Social Security issue.

The Republican National Committee also distributed a 38-page memo to all 50 state Republican parties before sending Members into town hall meetings during the recess.

The memo offered polling data, talking points, sample op-eds and letters to the editor, and it contained advice on how state parties can help drive more sympathetic audiences — particularly college students — to GOP lawmakers’ town hall meetings. Republicans have also been encouraged to attend Democratic Social Security events and ask pointed, RNC-scripted questions.

The RNC is also running a faux March Madness bracket in which college students from different states compete to see which state can attract the most signatures to a petition to “preserve” Social Security.

RNC spokesman Brian Jones said that he had already heard anecdotal evidence that the state parties had been effective at driving increased turnout to Social Security town halls.

Boosting that attendance and encouraging grass-roots support is seen by Republicans as crucial in their efforts counteract the efforts of seniors groups, such as AARP, as well as liberal interest groups that are working to defeat any plan involving private accounts.

“We’re leveraging our existing list to get behind Social Security and also working to build a new list,” said Jones.

Treasury Department spokesman Rob Nichols noted that administration officials, including Bush, have held 108 events since the president began his 60-day tour, of which 52 were town hall meetings with Members of Congress.

With Congress back in session, Nichols said he hopes more Members of Congress will follow the lead of Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who have introduced bills to overhaul Social Security and create private investment accounts for beneficiaries. The White House has already rejected some of their proposals as unworkable, including a Graham plan to raise the cap on how much of a person’s salary can be taxed for Social Security purposes.

Still, Nichols said the free-flow of ideas is crucial to the president’s eventual success. “The more people who come forward with solutions, we regard that as a positive event,” he said.

CLARIFICATION: The April 4 article “Bush Seeks to Rally Hill GOP” implied that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) believed his comments on Social Security in a National Journal article were taken out of context. The Speaker’s office felt that subsequent news reports, not the National Journal article itself, put Hastert’s comments in the wrong context. In addition, the article overstated the Bush administration’s opposition to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) proposal to raise the cap on how much of a person’s income can be taxed for Social Security purposes. Treasury Secretary John Snow has said there are “strong arguments” against Graham’s plan.

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