Reforming Social Security, a centerpiece of President Bush's second-term agenda, may be endangered because of Republican fears that the issue could hurt the party in the 2006 elections.
On Thursday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested the head of the House Republican campaign committee spoke for himself when he urged fellow GOP leaders to drop plans for Social Security legislation this year, citing the potential repercussions next year's elections.
“I think Tom Reynolds may have been talking about what his feelings are,” Hastert told reporters late Thursday. “Social Security is something very important. It’s something we’ve talked about doing, and when we decide to move forward we’ll let the press know.”
In the latest blow to the White House on the issue, Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., conveyed his views Wednesday in a meeting with Hastert as well as a larger gathering of Republican lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee, officials said Thursday.
As chairman of the House Congressional Campaign Committee, Reynolds is point man for the GOP effort to retain its majority in the 2006 midterm elections. Democrats must gain 15 seats next year to win control of the House.
The officials who described the conversations spoke only condition of anonymity, saying the sessions were private.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said, “We don’t comment on closed-door meetings.”
Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert, declined comment. Hastert and other GOP leaders vowed jointly in late June to place a Social Security bill on the floor this fall.
At the same time, it was yet another — and possibly fatal — setback in a long line of them. In last winter’s State of the Union speech, Bush asked Congress to pass a plan to create personal accounts under Social Security while shoring up its financing.
Katrina and gas prices
Reynolds met Wednesday with Hastert for a review of the political landscape, making clear his views on Social Security, according to one official. Two other Republicans said he had outlined his views on Social Security at a meeting with Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee.
According to one official who attended the meeting with committee Republicans, Reynolds told the group that the congressional agenda now has been expanded to include legislation relating to Hurricane Katrina and that public attention also has turned to high gasoline prices.
At the same time, the New York Republican told the group it would be difficult for Republicans to mount an effective public relations campaign on behalf of controversial Social Security legislation.
He expressed concern about forcing potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents to cast politically difficult votes on the issue, particularly when it appears unlikely the Senate will act this year.
In addition, recent polling has shown Bush’s approval ratings at a low point for his presidency.
The administration’s original blueprint would have involved steep reductions in planned future benefits for workers under age 55. It failed to generate significant support from the Republican-controlled Congress.
New strategy: add to broader bill
After weeks of maneuvering, House Republicans have said in recent weeks they intended to put a greatly reduced version of Bush’s proposal on the floor of the House this fall as part of a broader measure.
That bill, which Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been writing, would include changes in pension law, incentives for greater personal savings and some provisions relating to Social Security.
Democrats have waged a fierce campaign in opposition to the president’s initial Social Security plan, and have been relentless in opposition to all the variations that have surfaced.
Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic campaign committee, issued a statement that said “the Republican plan on Social Security is as insolvent as the political strategy behind it.
“American seniors can be grateful that sinking poll numbers, a desire to save their political skin and united Democratic opposition combined to force the Republican majority to abandon their reckless privatization plan.”