For Bush, a real Social Security "crisis"

Democrats are united against the president's plan, and the White House can't keep Republicans onboard.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 4, 2005 2:48PM (EST)

Just a few days ago, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was telling reporters that George Bush's Social Security plan was in trouble. While Frist said that he wouldn't take Bush's plan for private accounts "off the table yet," he made it clear that a vote on the plan may be a long time in coming. "In terms of whether it will be a week, a month, six months or a year, as to when we bring something to the floor, it's just too early," Frist said.

That was Tuesday, and the White House wasn't happy. And -- what do you know? -- by Thursday Frist was singing a different tune. On the Senate floor Thursday, Frist said Congress must act on the Bush plan now. "We need to do it this year," he said. "This year. Not next year."

The trouble is, saying it won't make it so. Bush's plan is in free fall now, even if the president can't quite bring himself to admit it. Bush said Thursday that he's "got a lot more work to do" to sell his plan but that the process has just begun. "I've only had nine trips around the country so far -- or nine states on my trips," Bush told reporters during a visit to the CIA Thursday. But Bush's traveling roadshow doesn't seem to be helping: The president has been pitching his plan for more than a month now, and the polls show that public support for it has fallen, not grown, over that period of time. And in a sign of how the battlefield has shifted from winning over Democrats to keeping Republicans onboard, Bush will campaign for Social Security reform today in Indiana and New Jersey -- in the districts of two Republican congressmen who have not yet offered enthusiastic support for Bush's plan.

With each passing day, the Democrats are feeling more and more emboldened -- so much so that 42 of them felt confident enough Thursday to sign a letter demanding that Bush "publicly and unambiguously announce" that he was rejecting his own privatization plan.

While the president isn't likely to do that anytime soon, other Republicans continue to look hard for compromise and face-saving. Senate Finance Committee chairman Chuck Grassley told reporters that it may be time for Bush to move on -- and for Republicans in Congress to start working with Democrats on what he said is the real problem facing Social Security: its solvency. "Since personal accounts don't have a lot to do with solvency," Grassley said, perhaps Republicans should "focus on solvency and just bring people to the table on what you do about solvency over the next 75 years."

Tim Grieve

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

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