WASHINGTON – House Democrats have decided to quit emphasizing that they will not negotiate changes to Social Security (search) until President Bush drops his idea for private accounts. The switch in strategy comes after Democrats learned from focus groups that people frown on the lawmakers for being obstinate.
"People feel like it doesn't show a good-faith effort," said a top House aide, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the internal data. "It makes us seem like we're `typical politicians.'"
The shift in tactics comes with Democrats and Republicans unsure what will happen after the end next month of a campaign-style, 60-day travel blitz by the president and administration officials who are promoting his plan.
"It may seem like a long time to you, but realistically, we've really just started," Bush told the American Society of Newspaper Editors (search) last week.
Democrats say they are united in opposing a plan they contend would break a social contract by shifting Social Security from a government-guaranteed benefit to a personal investment subject to the risks of the market.
"I'm happy, we're happy, to talk to the president about Social Security if privatization is taken off the table, period," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters last week.
Behind the scenes, both sides appear to be reaching for a lifeline. Bush's top economic adviser said the White House would be willing to consider personal accounts atop the current Social Security taxes and benefit checks, instead as a replacement for part of each.
"We haven't ruled it out, we haven't ruled it in, but we're certainly willing to discuss it," said Allan Hubbard, head of the National Economic Council. "It really comes down to what the proposal is."
Some Republican lawmakers, in meetings with Bush, have urged him to focus less on his idea for private accounts and instead offer ideas for addressing the program's looming insolvency.
"He does understand that at some point we have to start talking about the specifics," Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., said after a White House meeting with Bush last week. "I think that he may just not be ready to be there yet."
Some Democrats plan use this Wednesday's 22nd anniversary of the last major changes to the federal retirement system as an opportunity to address the solvency issue.
Social Security now takes in more in payroll taxes than it disburses in benefits to about 47 million retirees. But that trend is projected to end in 2017 amid the retirement of the baby boom generation.
By 2041, the system will have exhausted a trust fund built up to continue paying full retiree benefits. Then, according to program analysts, payroll taxes will be able to cover only about 72 percent of promised benefits.