WASHINGTON – President Bush’s latest attempt to revive his campaign to revamp Social Security – and re-launch his floundering second presidential term – wasn’t gaining any new converts on Capitol Hill Friday.
Instead, it only deepened the chasm between the parties, even as key Republicans announced they would try again to attract Democrats with sweeping new retirement legislation that combines Social Security, pensions and health care.
Bush’s central idea of letting workers invest some of their payroll taxes into private retirement savings accounts remains the political ball-and-chain that’s hobbling his top second-term legislative goal. Virtually all Democrats in Congress, and many Republicans, are dead-set against it.
And his new proposal, announced at his Thursday night news conference, to change the way future Social Security retirement benefits are calculated and reduce their rate of growth for all but the poor, opened a new battlefront with Democrats, who say it would hurt middle-income retirees.
The bottom line: Bush’s Social Security proposal still looks dead in the water.
“I don’t think there is anything that the president is going to be able to do to sway any votes one way or the other,” said Mickey Edwards, a Republican former congressman from Oklahoma who is now a director at the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
“Every week that goes by just plants more doubts in people’s minds whether this is a good thing or whether it’s necessary. I think the president is swimming upstream.”
Bush’s struggles stem from a combination of factors. His public approval ratings are at an all-time low, hurt by high oil and gas prices and perceptions of a tepid economy.
Democrats, meanwhile, have become emboldened by a Republican retreat on ethics in the House of Representatives and a partisan confrontation over judges in the Senate.
And aided by liberal groups and the AARP, the powerful seniors’ lobby, Democrats have mounted a national campaign against the president’s proposal.
Until now, Democrats have insisted Bush would have to abandon his quest to create private investment accounts funded with payroll taxes for them to participate in any negotiations about fixing Social Security.
But on Friday, they seemed to up the ante, rejecting any proposal that would reduce the growth rate of benefits for middle-income retirees.
Thursday night Bush endorsed a new Social Security fix that would protect the benefits of low-income retirees but reduce the rate of growth for benefits for wealthier seniors.
Democrats immediately denounced the idea as an attempt to change Social Security from its original intent as retirement “insurance” for all Americans to a welfare program meant only for those in poverty.
“We’re going to slug it out with the president and the Republicans who want to turn Social Security into a poverty program,” said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Social Security subcommittee.
Bush on Friday deplored the “gotcha politics” that he said gets in the way of responsible government. In a warning to Democrats, he added: “Eventually what’s going to happen in this debate is that if – those who block meaningful reform are going to be held to account in the polls.”
Encouraged by polls that show Bush losing ground on his plan for private accounts, Democrats say they have no interest in offering alternatives to it.
But polls present a mixed picture. They show that while Americans remain skeptical toward individual accounts, they believe the solvency plight of Social Security requires an urgent remedy.
A poll by the Pew Research Center last month also showed 58 percent of those surveyed favor reducing benefits for “wealthy retirees.” That would suggest that Bush’s progressive approach to benefit increases could prove popular – depending on where the line is drawn for slowing the growth rate of future benefits.
Democrats focus on the potential impact on middle-income Americans, a voting bloc they’re courting aggressively.
On Friday, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., scheduled hearings on retirement proposals that he said could produce legislation by mid-June.
He credited Bush for raising public attention about Social Security’s solvency problems but didn’t embrace the president’s plan.