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GOP to Return to Social Security

Despite lackluster support so far for President Bush’s call to overhaul Social Security, Congressional Republicans are quietly laying the groundwork to address the issue when Congress returns from its month-long August recess.

Republican leaders are putting a strategy in place to ensure that Bush’s No. 1 domestic priority remains on the legislative front burner, even if the Senate’s full attention is focused on confirmation hearings for whoever is nominated to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Bush continues to back sweeping changes to the Social Security system, and he deployed White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove to Capitol Hill prior to the July Fourth recess to reinforce his desire for Congress to address the issue.

Rove met with Republican Senators and asked them to vote on a Social Security measure — an action that would force conservative Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) to publicly state a position on reforming the system.

“The president feels very strongly on this, having campaigned on the issue twice, and Karl Rove’s feelings are very well known — that we are given an opportunity to deal with important issues and challenging issues and we got an obligation to step forward,” said Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), a member of a Senate GOP task force on Social Security. “This is the most likely opportunity we will have to address Social Security for a long time to come.”

While the GOP plan is still in its nascent stages, the idea is to have the House approve a Social Security-related bill and send it to the Senate for consideration. The measure would not address the creation of personal accounts — a sticking point for Democrats — but would rather serve as a building block for a far more reaching reform bill that would be taken up some time in the future.

It is not clear what specific measure the House would be urged to pass, but several Senators and aides suggested that it could be a bill currently being drafted by Republican Reps. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Sam Johnson (Texas), Clay Shaw (Fla.), and Jim McCrery (La.).

“Our hope is that [their bill] will come over here,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), another member of the GOP Social Security task force. “It will be something for us to unite around and it will be something very specific.”

On a parallel track, Republican leaders would continue to support the efforts of Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) to continue to pursue a comprehensive approach to overhaul the Social Security system within their respective committees.

Senior Democrats, though, seem unmoved by the GOP plan and continue to express opposition to any Social Security proposal as long as Republicans promote the establishment of private accounts.

“We are as firmly opposed to privatization, because it is such a bad idea now as we always been,” said Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee. “We can’t get to the table until the president takes privatization off the table.”

Part of Bush’s reform proposal is to divert funds away from Social Security to private accounts.

Republicans are specifically targeting Senators such as Nelson, who represent states that supported Bush in the 2004 election. GOP aides privately acknowledge without the support of these Senators, Bush’s goal of overhauling the Social Security system will fall short. Just last week, Rove visited Nebraska to deliver a speech detailing why Bush believes the Social Security system needs to be retooled.

To date, Nelson said he has not taken a public stand on the issue because no specific bill has been brought to the Senate floor for consideration. But the Nebraskan warned that he would not be forced into supporting a proposal because of pressure from the White House.

“I am not afraid of taking the right stand, ever,” Nelson said. “The people of Nebraska are less interested in having something done quickly than they are having it done right. Show me the plan. Show me the numbers. Let’s go from concept to content to calculus.”

Even if Senate Democrats successfully filibuster a GOP-sponsored Social Security bill, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) vowed that his colleagues would not be deterred in their goal of trying to overhaul the Social Security system in the 109th Congress.

“We believe it is important,” said Santorum, who is also a member of the GOP Social Security task force. “The president hasn’t given up, and neither will we.”

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