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Democrats Look To Expand Model

Social Security Strategy Praised

Congressional Democratic leaders are in serious talks with labor unions and other activists about replicating the model used to fight President Bush’s Social Security proposal, using an “inside-outside” approach on a handful of issues to put Republicans on the defensive through Election Day 2006.

Senate Democrats are holding a special caucus today that aides and Senators say will begin the process of establishing several internal campaign-style message operations, mirrored on how Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and a top aide have led the battle against Bush’s Social Security overhaul.

At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders have been meeting with labor officials about creating a permanent status and funding stream for Americans United to Protect Social Security, the interest group that has served as the central outside opponent to the president’s Social Security plan.

“We are engaged in serious discussions with people on the Hill and around town about maintaining Americans United in some form or the other,” said Chuck Loveless, legislative director for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has been the biggest labor supporter of the group.

While critical issues about the group’s budget and staff remain unresolved — including its name if its portfolio expands beyond Social Security — Loveless said there was “widespread agreement” among labor officials that the group “has a very strong infrastructure that we want to maintain.”

Americans United, a 501(c)4 group, had been struggling with funding throughout the summer, and at one point was considering scaling back some of its state-based field operations, until Reid and other Congressional leaders pledged support for the group and AFSCME offered up more financing.

In a sense, this moment of transition marks a victory for Americans United and its allies. With top Republicans such as Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) now openly opposed to moving ahead on Social Security, Congressional Democrats may need to pivot to other issues to keep the GOP on the defensive through the midterms, which are still more than 13 months away.

Given this imperative, Democrats are increasingly looking at expanding the model they used to beat back Bush’s plan, which they consistently labeled a “privatization” effort.

“We were all together, we stuck together. We didn’t deviate one iota,” said Baucus.

Baucus, ranking member of the Finance Committee, and his chief of staff, Jim Messina, were designated early this year as the internal Democratic leaders to fight Bush’s proposal, with Messina serving in the key role as liaison to Americans United and other interest groups. Americans United, which is run by a host of strategists who have worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, then set up a series of subsidiaries in key states where House and Senate Republicans could be pressured on the issue.

One source associated with the anti-privatization campaign said it was critical that this permanent campaign model, with a centralized structure in Washington backed by field operations around the country, be maintained if the party wants to be successful in the midterms.

This source suggested that the old model for these issue fights focused too much on what happened on Capitol Hill as opposed to exacting political pressure on Republicans in their states and districts. The source noted how House Republicans have grown increasingly weary of pushing Bush’s most critical domestic policy issue.

Just last week Reynolds, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, announced his opposition to moving forward. And McConnell told Roll Call this week that he would support moving a Social Security overhaul only if it is a bipartisan bill.

Financing for Americans United, however, will remain a particularly sticky issue, said one Democrat familiar with the discussions. Because the AFL-CIO has suffered the defections of several big member unions, the politics of labor have become “more complicated,” this source said.

To date, Americans United has been viewed by most activists as a vehicle for Gerald McEntee, the president of AFSCME.

Some Democratic strategists want to ensure that AFSCME continues to provide huge backing for the group — Loveless told Roll Call in June that the union had deposited at least $800,000 into Americans United — but they also want to broaden the donor base and free it up to be more independent of McEntee’s hold.

Loveless said that many meetings have been held with other labor groups and that there is greater interest than ever from other unions to support a broadened portfolio for the group. In light of Reynolds’ seeming political surrender on Social Security last week, the unions have become more motivated than ever, he said.

“This is a major defeat for the president,” he added.

Reid and McEntee were to meet on the issue this week but, busy schedules have pushed the meeting back, possibly until next week, sources said.

Internally, today’s Senate Democratic caucus is the first step in the effort to produce a set of issue areas that will provide a “seamless message” with House Democrats and the Democratic National Committee, according to Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman.

Other aides said the hope was to come up with as many as five campaign operations similar to the Social Security effort. In each operation, one Senator and one top aide would be designated as the top internal point people on that issue.

In that construction, the staffer would then serve as the key liaison to Americans United in its new form, as well as any other outside groups involved in the process.

Baucus hopes that one of those campaigns will focus on retirement security and will be spearheaded by him and Messina. Baucus said these efforts were about more than just message delivery but also about crafting a positive Democratic agenda.

“It’s deeds, not words,” he said. “It’ll be a real, solid, major step forward.”

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