Republicans jump ship on Social Security

Bill Frist says a vote may have to wait until next year -- and even then it might not include private accounts.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 2, 2005 1:58PM (EST)

The bad news keeps coming for proponents of the president's Social Security privatization plan. Senators got such an earful from their constituents over the weekend that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist now tells the Washington Post that the Senate may not take up Social Security until next year -- and that even then, the reforms the Senate passes may not include Bush's plan for private investment accounts.

The public is increasingly unenthusiastic about the idea of private accounts, and Democrats on Capitol Hill are feeling stronger by the minute. What really matters, however, is that Republicans lawmakers are beginning to see that there's little to lose -- and much to gain -- in criticizing the president's proposal, acknowledging that it's not exactly popular, or making counter-proposals or their own. "When a boat springs so many leaks, it only floats for so long," Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio tells the New York Times. "The Democrats have certainly shot holes in it, but the Republicans have also been shooting holes."

Consider these shots:

Virginia Sen. John Warner told the Post that, at a Social Security forum he held, "People [were] saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. Let's deal with this Medicare-Medicaid situation first. That's where my greatest pain is.'"

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told a Washington radio station that Bush's proposal allows workers to divert too big of a percentage of their Social Security taxes into private accounts.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told the Post that selling Bush's plan is "going to be a difficult thing to do at best."

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told Newsday: "There's a gap between where the policy-makers are and where the public is. Until the public realizes and understands the particulars of the problem, it's very hard for them to arrive at a consensus on a solution."

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun says that a handful of Democratic senators, including Nebraska's Ben Nelson and Delaware's Tom Carper, have been meeting quietly with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is trying to pull together some kind of a deal on Social Security that could win at bipartisan support by eliminating some of the risk of private accounts or by targeting them at low-income people. But if the polls and the town halls meetings and all the rest continue to show so little public support for Bush's plan, even the Ben Nelsons and Tom Carpers and Joe Liebermans of the world will see that there's little need to help the Republican save face.

The White House says it's still early. White House spokesman Trent Duffy told the Post: "There are plenty of times that official Washington has said the president won't succeed, and he has." That's a lesson Democrats have learned all too well. Asked this week about the president's plan, California Sen. Barbara Boxer told Newsday: "I don't think it'll succeed - but I wouldn't put anything past this group."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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