Bush Loses Key Group on Social Security

By Jackie Chalmers

Wall Street Journal

Washington -- THIS IS THE STORY of the Dogs that did bark -- a tale that helps explain why President Bush is finding a wall of Democratic opposition to his proposal to let workers carve personal retirement accounts from Social Security.

The president regularly says he can't fix Social Security without Democratic support. Last week in Ohio he declared: "It's time for us to set aside the partisan bitterness of Washington, D.C., and come together to make sure we have a Social Security system that works."

Most Democrats oppose his plan to let workers divert some Social Security taxes into private accounts, a change that would alter the program they see as their party's proudest legacy. Party liberals are eager to wield the issue against Republicans in next year's congressional elections.

That opposition was expected. What has surprised the White House and Republican congressional leaders are the yelps from the Capitol's small pack of conservative House Democrats -- the self-named Blue Dogs -- and a few like-minded senators. A source of support for Mr. Bush in the past, these Democrats so far sound unyielding in their opposition to his private accounts plan. The explanation lies in both deficit politics, and in resentments over past grievances.

"It's a trust issue," says Blue Dog Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, "because of the lack of bipartisan cooperation in the last four years."

The 35 Blue Dogs, mostly from the South, took their name in the mid-1990s when a former member said he felt "choked blue" by the party's liberals. Along with several Democratic senators, some were ready to back a Social Security overhaul when Mr. Bush took office and the government was running surpluses. But the president focused instead on cutting taxes repeatedly while spending grew.

The result was a ballooning deficit -- and the Blue Dogs are defined by their hostility to deficits. Mr. Bush's private Social Security accounts would require trillions of dollars of borrowing to cover long-term transition costs at a time when government debt is piling up. "That's ludicrous," says Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee.

Nonetheless a few Republicans, particularly in the Senate, are reaching out in hopes of finding a bipartisan compromise. The Senate Centrists Coalition, headed by Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine and Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, is seeking an alternative to the Bush plan. "There's a core of people who are willing to put something together on both sides, but it wouldn't have private accounts as a carve-out" from Social Security, Sen. Lieberman says.

Of course, politics as well as policy explains Democrats' unity. The Blue Dogs share with other Democrats a deep distrust of the Bush White House after bruising legislative and political battles of the first term. Conservative Democrats feel that keenly because they expected the president to work more with them, based on his bipartisan record as Texas governor.

Instead, they argue, he governed to please his own party conservatives, and acquiesced as Republicans ran the House so that "stifling deliberation and quashing dissent . . . became the standard operating procedure," as House Democrats put it last week in a 147-page report of alleged abuses of power.

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that often sides with administration policies, says the president allowed partisanship to rise "to a level I never would have imagined he would," given his 2000 campaign as "a uniter, not a divider," and thereby has helped unite Democrats.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy counters with examples of legislation that "couldn't have happened without Democratic votes" -- the No Child Left Behind education law, the creation of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the Patriot Act crafted to tighten defenses against terrorism, and the Bush tax cuts. "When the president said he wanted to `change the tone,' what he meant was that he would refrain from personal attacks on Democrats" and he has "to this day," Mr. Duffy says.
The Blue Dogs are angry at Mr. Bush over the intensity of the president's -- and his party's -- campaigning against Democrats who backed him on tax cuts, the Iraq war and other issues. Casualties include a Blue Dogs founder, former Democratic Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, who had been a cosponsor of a bipartisan bill to make changes in Social Security similar to those the president seeks.

Conservative Democrats, with unusual passion, say trust is lacking. "It's about credibility," says Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, who says lawmakers got faulty information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Medicare drug-benefit cost estimates and other issues. "So when this guy says, `We have a crisis in Social Security and trust me to fix it,' the credibility isn't there," he says.

So far, the group hasn't coalesced around any alternative to Mr. Bush's plan; instead, it is pressing reform of Congress's budget process to help reduce deficits. Mr. Stenholm's Social Security bill, which he had cosponsored with Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, had been Congress' only bipartisan proposal. After Mr. Stenholm's defeat last year, Mr. Kolbe struggled to find another Democratic partner. Finally Mr. Boyd enlisted. Yet the Florida lawmaker, who says he's had no contact with Mr. Bush, opposes the president's plan to borrow heavily. He and Mr. Kolbe propose future benefit cuts and tax increases that would fall heaviest on upper-income workers.

Mr. Stenholm, meanwhile, remains active, having joined a nonpartisan group that advocates for Social Security changes including private accounts and reduced benefit growth. Earlier this year, two Bush advisers contacted him to see if Mr. Stenholm would join the president on the road campaigning for Social Security changes. He declined, and -- like other Blue Dogs -- is opposed to borrowing for private accounts.
In the Senate, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has struggled for two months to find common ground with moderate-to-conservative Democrats. One target, Montana's Max Baucus, has been designated the Senate Democrats' point man on Social Security, a move that effectively has kept Sen. Baucus in the Democratic fold.

The White House's Mr. Duffy predicts that the president ultimately will come to terms with enough Democrats. For now, he says, "The easiest way to explain Democratic unity is that the labor unions and the AARP won't let them discuss this."
But Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who has a private-accounts bill of his own, wonders whether the unity against Mr. Bush on Social Security is the "payback" that he says he and other Republicans warned the White House about. "For every action," he says, "there's a reaction."
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