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Pursuable Democrats Wait to Talk

White House officials have not met with any of the Democratic Senators considered potential swing votes in the fight to overhaul Social Security since President Bush’s primetime news conference last month in which he laid out several more proposals to restructure the retirement system.

The administration recently requested a meeting with Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson but no date for the conversation has been set, according to Nelson’s communications director, David DiMartino. Nelson did meet with Bush’s chief economic adviser, Al Hubbard, on April 26 — just two days before the president’s news conference.

Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who along with Nelson are considered the most likely targets for the White House, have not been contacted, said knowledgeable party sources.

Conrad visited the White House several weeks ago to discuss the raw numbers involved in instituting major changes to Social Security but the meeting was not productive, according to informed Democratic sources.

Nelson said late last week that he is “urging as much discussion and reaching out as possible” by the White House. “The president is looking to what is possible,” he added. “You can pick up a lot by reaching out.”

Senate Democrats suggest that the pace of outreach is slow and is a sign that the White House is trying to win the public relations battle rather than develop a substantive — and bipartisan — proposal to restructure the retirement system.

“They don’t really want Democratic support,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “They have done nothing to get it.”

Not so, said White House spokesman Trent Duffy, who pointed out that Hubbard has met with more than 30 Members of Congress since the president’s April 28 news conference.

Duffy would not reveal the identities or party affiliations of the Members Hubbard has sought out. But he described the administration’s efforts to find common ground on Social Security as a “very steady and active dialogue.”

“This is not about perception,” Duffy said. “This is about working together to do the right thing and save Social Security.”

Without question, however, the fight over whether and how best to remake Social Security has been placed on the back burner in the Senate in recent weeks as the coming battle over judicial nominations has heated up.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) appears ready to trigger the nuclear option to end filibusters on the president’s judicial nominees this week, a move that Senate Democrats have pledged will stifle any further legislative business not directly tied to national security concerns.

As such, the burden for moving the ball forward on Social Security has shifted for now to the House, where Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) has said he plans to report a bill out of his committee within the next month.

Thomas, who met with Nelson to discuss options within the past two weeks, has expressed support for both pillars of the president’s plan: creating private accounts within Social Security and progressive indexing to make up for the funding shortfall.

Under the progressive indexing proposal, low-income workers would continue to receive their full retirement compensation, while middle-class and affluent workers would see significant benefit reductions.

Regardless of what happens legislatively in the House, the Senate remains the center of the Social Security fight.

Senate Democrats continue to present a unified front in opposition to private accounts and will not propose a plan of their own until that plank of the president’s proposal is taken off the table.

“We have a broader, proactive retirement reform initiative, separate and apart from Social Security,” said one Democratic Senate leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Even Nelson, who has so far been the most receptive Democrat to the president’s proposals, has told the White House to “deal with solvency first and then we can find a way to deal with private accounts,” DiMartino said.

Democrats are jittery, however, about a potential break in their ranks, which is what happened in 2003 when Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D), ranking member of the Finance Committee, worked with Republicans to hash out a Medicare prescription drug bill, even as most of his colleagues were barred from the negotiations.

Despite that recent history, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) tapped Baucus to serve as the lead negotiator for any and all Social Security reform proposals put forward by Bush.

One Senate Democratic leadership aide said the party must stay united now in opposition to private accounts because the White House is “desperate” due to an “erosion in credibility” on the issue.

Duffy, the White House spokesman, responded that the essential tenets of Bush’s proposal are “things the Democrat Party has fought for in this past.”

“This is not a partisan issue,” Duffy added. “It affects Republicans and Democrats and everyone in between.”

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