Pollsters warn GOP on Social Security

/ Source: The Associated Press

House Republican leaders must consider President Bush’s proposal for personal Social Security accounts “in the context of the 2006 midterm elections,” their pollsters cautioned Tuesday in a confidential memo that said it will be difficult to sway workers nearing retirement, a key portion of the electorate.

Near-retirees are evenly split on the proposal, according to the survey findings presented to senior House GOP leaders in the Capitol, but opposition rises and support declines as they are presented with claims on both sides of the issue.

Still, advocates of the plan have persuasive arguments on their side, the memo said, suggesting they stress that the accounts are voluntary; they will give workers a chance to control their own investments; and their children will be able to inherit what they have accumulated.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the memo as Bush’s proposal drew fresh criticism from congressional Democrats and the president held the latest in a series of White House meetings with Republicans to assure them he intends to take his case to the country.

Bush 'understands the burden'
Bush “understands the burden that he carries” to sell his plan to the nation and to Congress, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said after the session.

For their part, Democrats concentrated their fire Tuesday on a suggestion from a prominent Republican lawmaker, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., that Congress adjust Social Security benefits to take gender or race into account.

“I want to work with the president to strengthen Social Security,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. But, he added, “We cannot use race or gender to determine benefits, just as we should not pursue a privatization plan that will make deep cuts in benefits and create $2 trillion in additional debt.”

Bush has placed Social Security atop his domestic legislative agenda for the year, and he is expected to speak to GOP lawmakers about it Friday when he appears at a closed-door retreat. He also is expected to make it a focus of his State of the Union address next week before a joint session of Congress and a nationally televised audience.

Some Republicans have expressed concerns about the political impact of his recommendations, which are expected to include voluntary personal accounts for those under 55, probably accompanied by a reduction in their promised retirement benefits. The president has said Social Security is in a financial crisis and has asked for the changes as part of an effort to shore up its finances.

Democrats in Congress oppose Bush’s plan for personal accounts, arguing that they will undercut the program’s stability. They also argue there is no crisis, although the GOP polling memo judged that is “not a credible or persuasive message to voters. ... It flies in the face of the very immediate concerns they have about the Social Security system.”

Greater impact
In contrast, pollsters advised House GOP leaders that the arguments in opposition that are most persuasive with voters are “messages regarding families possibly losing retirement if the market goes down, and workers not having necessary investment knowledge.”

Those arguments “have a greater persuasive impact” on voters age 55 and older, the memo said. That segment of the population is likely to make up 40 percent or more of the electorate in 2006, it said.

The pollsters also reported majority support for requiring payroll taxes to be paid on all income and reducing the starting benefit for all those who retire early. “But a majority of voters oppose increasing Social Security payroll taxes on all workers, reducing the starting benefit for all future retirees, raising the retirement age, or borrowing money and increasing the debt,” the memo said.

The poll was taken for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the political arm of the House GOP.

Overall, younger workers favor personal accounts by a wide margin, giving Republicans a base of support. Elderly voters generally oppose them, but the White House hopes to neutralize their concerns by leaving their benefits unchanged.

That leaves the near-retirees, those age 55-64, as the pivotal group, and the memo said they are “clearly the demarcation point on this issue.”

Senate Finance Committee Republicans who met with Bush said the discussion was freewheeling, even as some members of the group balked at the costs involved. Bush promised to spell out many specifics in his State of the Union address, they said.

“This is the beginning of a very long process,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. “Obviously there is a lot of speculation over what the president intends to do. We’ll have an opportunity to look at these issues in a very deliberative way, and he understands that.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said while he is confident that Congress “will be able to follow the bold leadership of the president” and pass legislation to change the current system, the White House needs to do more to win public support.

“This body needs to engage the American people much better,” he said of the Senate. “And I would say the administration does as well.”

Bush tried to get ministers and other leaders of the black community behind his agenda in an earlier private meeting that lasted more than an hour. Attendees said Bush told them his plan to add private accounts to Social Security would benefit blacks since they tend to die younger than whites and end up paying in more than they take out. Private accounts would be owned by workers and could be inherited by loved ones after death.