Roll Call: ‘Privatization to Be ’06 Focus’

Privatization to Be '06 Focus

July 11, 2006
By Erin P. Billings,
Roll Call Staff

Even before the White House recently hinted that Social Security reform was still on the administration's radar screen, Democratic leaders and their allies privately had been plotting to resurrect an issue they believe can help inch them to electoral victories this fall.

Democratic Congressional leaders are planning a major event later this month and are looking to tie their "anti-privatization" Social Security message to legislative items moving through Congress in the coming weeks. Senate and House Democrats are still working out the details of their strategy, but leadership aides in both chambers say Members plan to bring the issue up on the floor, at home in their districts, in message events and in radio addresses through November.

"We're going to look for every opportunity to bring it up," said one senior Senate Democratic aide. "It's not going to be just one thing. It's fair to say you are going to hear people talk about it all the way to the election."

Democrats believe they can recreate some of the political momentum they gained last year in launching a massive political offensive to sideline the efforts of President Bush to overhaul the entitlement program.

To counter Bush's argument that the program is broken and will go bankrupt if major revisions are not enacted in the near term, Democrats claimed Bush was trying to put the program in private hands without government protection and create a risky system without guaranteed long-term benefits.

Both parties have remained fairly quiet on the topic for months.

But as recently as last month, Bush, his chief of staff Josh Bolten and some Congressional Republicans have suggested revisions to Social Security can and still should be addressed. Democrats, who had been meeting on the issue already, say those statements gave them added incentive to pursue their efforts.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "made a strategic decision a long time ago not to let this go," said Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman. "We were planning on highlighting the issue anyway, and lo and behold much to our surprise President Bush and House and Senate Republicans a couple of weeks ago went public again with plans to privatize Social Security."

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), acknowledged that there are few legislative opportunities left in the House this year to highlight party differences on Social Security revisions. But Daly said Members still plan to "talk about it whenever they can to remind people that this isn't just a fleeting idea."

"This is something Republicans are committed to - they want to privatize Social Security," he said. "Is it politically good for us? Yes. But that's not why it's such a big deal. Democrats are committed to protecting Social Security because it is one of our core values."

Like the GOP efforts to win political points on national security and the economy this year, Democrats believe they, too, can follow up a former success story with a compelling sequel, or at least recapture some of that one-time energy on the issue. What's more, unlike issues like the Iraq war, party members are nearly uniform in their opposition to proposals to privatize any aspect of Social Security.

"This, and corruption are the two issues that keep everyone together and that we are united around," said the senior Democratic Senate staffer. "We are always going to come back to this and remind people that [Republicans] are wrong."

While Congressional Democrats dust off their battle plan, Americans United, the outside group that led efforts across the country last year to beat back overhaul efforts, is mounting a renewed campaign of its own to call attention to individuals' positions on the issue.

The group is drafting scripts for a national media campaign against candidates and incumbents, including GOP Sens. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Rep. Clay Shaw (Fla.), who they believe are at the heart of efforts to put Social Security in private hands and also provide inviting political targets. Americans United plans to begin that advertising blitz no later than the first week in August, kicking off in as many as five of its nearly 20 targeted states.

"Our effort is not about the outcome of the election, but the outcome of the issue," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United.

Woodhouse added that his organization, which in January decided to expand its focus to other causes, was "always planning to return to this issue" to remind voters once again about Bush's plans to privatize the system. But, Woodhouse said, "the Republicans' recent actions and statements about returning to it have just made the issue and our returning to it more urgent and more timely."

Republicans say they aren't surprised Democrats are returning to their old playbook on Social Security but add it is a risky move for a minority party they contend lacks an agenda of its own. What's more, GOP sources indicated, a large share of Senate Democrats opposed a Republican proposal earlier this year to prevent illegal immigrants from collecting Social Security credits - an issue that undoubtedly will come up on the stump.

"This is a failing strategy for the Democrats," said a senior GOP aide. "The last thing they want to do is remind voters once again that they have no plans or alternative solutions."

Aides to Reid and Pelosi have held numerous meetings in recent weeks with Americans United and other leading Democrats on Social Security reform, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Senate Finance ranking member Max Baucus (Mont.) and Ways and Means ranking member Charlie Rangel (N.Y.).

That same group also is coordinating a Democratic Social Security event later this month before Congress adjourns for the August recess. Senators, House Members and Democratic candidates also are expected to keep protection of Social Security atop their talking points during the month of August and heading into November.

In the nearer term, however, Senate Democrats are planning to link GOP attempts to advance the line-item veto and other budget procedural changes to Social Security privatization and benefit cuts. Already, Reid has asked his Caucus in a letter to paint those issues as "a sneak attack on Social Security and Medicare."

"President Bush and congressional Republicans have made it clear that they are determined to dismantle Social Security," the letter sent to Democratic Senators reads. "Democrats stood with the American people in rejecting this privatization scheme."