WASHINGTON – Following President Bush's lead, congressional Republicans are taking their campaign to overhaul Social Security (search) back home.
With Congress on a weeklong break, backers and doubters alike are listening to constituents at town hall meetings that interest groups have tried to pack with people who support Bush's plans.
"Most people get it that there is a serious problem with Social Security as we know it," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who conducted five town hall meetings on the issue in one day this week. But he said Congress is still a ways from settling on and approving a plan.
"Let's face it, this is politically heavy lifting," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Treasury Secretary John Snow (search) acknowledged as much, agreeing that many in Congress are still leery of Bush's plan to create personal investment accounts as part of Social Security.
"We still have some work to do," Snow told reporters Wednesday.
But he predicted support will grow as the campaign intensifies.
"We're at the early stages of this education process and engagement process," Snow said. "We're going to hit this hard. We're going to get the facts out. We're going to ... engage with the American people on the fundamentals of Social Security."
Snow is doing his part this week in Florida, home to millions of the elderly. He plans to campaign for the Bush plan at a pair of Chamber of Commerce events, in interviews on morning and afternoon drive-time radio and with editorial boards of newspapers in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Jacksonville.
Strategists believe the key to winning the congressional debate over Social Security lies in convincing Americans that the existing system is in trouble and change is needed. The goal is to get the people to pressure their representatives in Congress to take action.
Then, as this pressure builds on Congress, backers hope more Republicans and at least some Democrats will support a comprehensive plan, which is likely to include benefit cuts, tax hikes or other painful choices that Bush and his allies gloss over in their speeches.
Lawmakers uncommitted to the Bush plan make it clear this will not be easy.
Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Colo., said the issue comes up at nearly every event he has attended this week, and people seem convinced the system's problems are real.
"But the anxiety is still: How are they going to fix it? Are they really going to fix it, or just screw it up?" Beauprez said.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said his constituents like the president, but they are quick to caution him: "Now don't you go supporting him automatically just because you're a Republican and he's a Republican. Remember, you represent us."
"You can't put me in the support column or the nonsupport (column)," said Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla. "I have to know what the solution is before I can make an intelligent opinion about it."
Social Security's troubles are largely demographic. Beginning as early as 2018, the Depression-era retirement system will start paying out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes (search). By 2042, the system will have exhausted the surpluses being built up now, and will only collect enough to pay about 73 percent of promised benefits, according to the program's trustees.
Bush has said a variety of ideas for fixing the problem are on the table — mostly cutting benefits in one way or another — though he doesn't endorse any of them. He prefers to talk about his plan for private accounts, in which younger workers could divert a portion of their payroll taxes and invest the money in the stock market. Private accounts do nothing to make the system more solvent, but supporters back them for other reasons.
At campaign-style events around the country, Bush stresses the system's problems and the benefits of personal accounts. And he repeatedly offers reassurance that people age 55 and over will not be affected by changes, hoping to neutralize the political force of older Americans, who are most likely to oppose personal accounts.
Bush is getting a lot of help from outside organizations. Interest groups backing the accounts have organized to make sure supporters show up at town hall meetings. In some cases, they hope to persuade wavering lawmakers; in others, they want to support those who already favor the accounts but might face opposition from constituents, said one official involved with the lobbying effort.
Both Republicans and Democrats sent their members home with talking points and pages of data on Social Security to prove their points.
House Democrats have scheduled more than 100 town halls this week and an additional 250 within the next month, aides said.
Nearly all Democrats in Congress have said they oppose diverting money from Social Security to pay for personal accounts, and many Republicans have expressed skepticism as well.