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GOP Struggles With Timetable

Democrats’ ongoing refusal to consider President Bush’s proposal to create private investment accounts under Social Security continues to give Congressional Republicans fits as they try to hammer out a timeline for possible action on legislation this year.

“Without bipartisan support, we are going through an exercise that is unlikely to be successful,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) said Thursday. “We’ll be very lucky to get something done by the fall of this year.”

Santorum added that, if Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) continues to be “able to hold all of his people, the chances of us getting something done here is going to be pretty tough.”

Even Bush administration officials tacitly acknowledge that they are between a rock and a hard place without Democratic support.

“The president has made it very clear that he believes that no solution works unless it’s bipartisan,” said Allan Hubbard, director of the Bush administration’s National Economic Council.

The White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill have repeatedly hinted that they are privately meeting with “open-minded” Democratic lawmakers and are optimistic that they will soon have a bipartisan coalition in favor of the president’s proposal to allow workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts, in exchange for a lower guaranteed Social Security benefit.

“There are three, four, five different folks talking [to Republicans], who are at least open to the idea of talking,” said Santorum, who did not name the Democrats to whom he was referring.

But Reid spokesman Jim Manley said he could find “no evidence” of Republicans penetrating Democrats’ resolve to oppose President Bush’s “privatization” plan.

The continuing stalemate between Democrats and Republicans manifests itself most noticeably in GOP predictions — or lack thereof — about when they will be able to move a specific bill.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was noncommittal last week when pressed on exactly when he would bring up a Social Security bill in his committee.

Asked to give more specifics on his comment that he would take up a Social Security bill in his committee “this summer,” Grassley demurred, saying it was a “pretty general” timeline. Later he said, “I think I said July.”

Still, Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House continue to brainstorm ways of convincing Democrats to begin negotiating on a Social Security bill. But because most of their proposed strategies have leaked to the media before they could even be attempted, Democrats have become even more wary of GOP overtures.

Told that Republicans were urging President Bush to talk more about making Social Security solvent than about his private investment account plan, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) questioned Republicans’ commitment to making Social Security financially sound beyond its projected insolvency in 2041.

“Is this just a way to get the process going [with Democrats] and then attach private accounts to it?” asked Stabenow, who is heading up the Democratic Social Security public relations effort.

Stabenow reiterated the Democratic mantra that they will refuse to work with Republicans unless the GOP gives up on trying to create private investment accounts under Social Security.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has said he is open to listening to the president’s private investment account proposal, but he criticized the administration for sidestepping the solvency issue, particularly since Bush has acknowledged that private investment accounts will not solve Social Security’s dwindling ability to pay promised benefits to retirees, the disabled, and widows and their children.

“They need to sit down and solve the solvency question first and then talk about other things,” Nelson said. “People are interested in solvency. … They don’t hear the White House talking about solvency.”

Though Bush has been talking in very general terms about how to shore up Social Security, his focus on private investment accounts has largely drowned out his attempts to link the two issues.

Indeed, Grassley urged the White House and his Congressional colleagues last week to refocus on the solvency issue.

“I don’t know to what extent to put this on the back of the president,” Grassley said. “We have not pushed enough discussion of the solvency issue. … We need to be concentrating on that. I don’t think we’ve done enough of that.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are still looking to fill the void caused by Bush’s refusal to send a detailed bill to Congress.

“I feel a real sense of urgency for us to come up with more proposals, so the president can get a sense of the landscape up here,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who will introduce his own bill in the next few weeks. DeMint’s bill would allow workers to divert as much as 5 percent of their income into personal accounts, a proposal significantly bigger than the accounts Bush has proposed.

But both Republicans and Democrats have been urging Bush to be more specific, something the administration has promised to do when Bush wraps up his “60 Stops in 60 Days” Social Security public relations campaign.

“The more specific he becomes, the more heat he takes, but the more pressure on the [Congress] to answer specific plans,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), according to an April 13 Associated Press report.

But Nelson said that only the White House could fill the void.

“Until you have some indication of where the White House is going to be, I think people will continue window shopping,” he said.

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