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As Social Security effort falters, Bush shifts

Stymied in his efforts to sell his brand of Social Security reform to the American people, President Bush has started emphasizing other parts of his domestic agenda.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Running into heavy resistance to his Social Security overhaul, President Bush has started emphasizing other parts of his domestic agenda and is promoting his foreign policy goals of defeating terrorism and spreading democracy.

“These are amazing times,” he tells audiences. Yet no matter which way he turns, he is finding a bumpy road.

Just short of two months into his second term, Bush still wields vast political clout and, by his accounts, has plenty of “political capital” left to spend. Still, polls show his approval ratings stuck at around 50 percent.

Failure to generate more public support for his plan for individual investment accounts for Social Security seems to have thrown the rest of his agenda off stride.

Among recent setbacks:

  • His initiative to control power plant emissions was rejected last week by a Republican-controlled Senate committee. His energy plan remains stalled after two unsuccessful attempts to get it through Congress in his first term.
  • His proposal to extend tax cuts for five years ran into opposition from Senate GOP leaders who were supporting a budget that holds tax cuts at $70 billion, rather than the $100 billion Bush proposed.
  • Bush’s effort to allow religious groups receiving federal grants to consider a job applicant’s religious beliefs has an uncertain future in the Senate after close passage in the House.

On the international front, Bush can draw comfort from successful Iraqi elections and democratic stirrings across the Middle East.

But his demands that Syria withdraw from Lebanon was undercut somewhat by a rally in Beirut that drew hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian supporters. The demonstration was organized by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group that the United States has branded a terrorist organization.

There was a fragile agreement at week’s end with Europe over offering economic incentives to Iran to end its nuclear program. Nonetheless, trans-Atlantic strains are evident when it comes to Iran and European plans to resume arms sales to China.

Not even St. Patrick's Day is safe
Washington’s relations with Italy have frayed after U.S. troops killed an Italian intelligence agent in Baghdad and wounded an Italian journalist.

Even the upcoming annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the White House was clouded by political intrigue.

The peace process in Northern Ireland has suffered setbacks. Allegations have arisen about the Irish Republican Army’s involvement in a bank heist and a tavern murder. As a result, Bush has scratched from the White House event political leaders who attended for 10 years. That includes Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing.

Bush has kept promoting his Social Security proposals. But the message and the itinerary were changed because of Republican jitters over Bush’s desire for personal investment accounts — and the trillions in expected transition costs at a time of soaring budget deficits.

Focus on solvency’
The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has suggested that Congress “focus on solvency” of Social Security rather than personal accounts. That’s not helping Bush’s cause.

The president took his case to four Republican states last week. It was a strategy shift. He began his 60-day, 60-city offensive by stumping in states where Democratic lawmakers were seen as capable of being persuaded. But Democrats have displayed rare unity on Social Security issues.

Also, the administration his signaled more flexibility about other suggestions. For example, a proposal by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to raise the retirement age to 68 and reduce benefits by tying them to life expectancy.

“All ideas, bring them forward. I’m interested in listening,” Bush said Friday in Memphis, Tenn. “There will be no political retribution when you put an idea on the table. As a matter of fact, you will get kudos.”

Some early victories
To be sure, Bush can claim some second-term victories.

His proposal to limit class-action liability lawsuits has become law. A Bush-supported bankruptcy bill to make it harder to shed consumer debt won Senate approval last week and is headed toward House approval. A bill to limit medical malpractice judgments seems to be advancing.

“He will be able to have signing ceremonies and gain a little capital. But it’s going to be tricky,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

“The whole approach that Bush normally works is to push the envelope, then embrace the opposition and claim victory. The trouble is, the only way for him to cut his losses on this may be to abandon private accounts,” Ornstein said.

That may be a bigger concession than the president is willing to make.