By Rick Klein
SAINT LEO, Fla. -- After spending a second congressional break hearing out constituents, many Republican lawmakers are set to return to Washington more convinced than ever that President Bush's Social Security plan isn't ready for launch.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said last week that the president's insistence on congressional approval this year doesn't appear realistic. Other prominent Republicans, including Senate Finance Committee chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and former House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, have also expressed doubt in recent days.
For Representative Ginny Brown-Waite, a second-term Republican who represents many of the retirement communities north of Tampa and west of Orlando, the cautions are merely a matter of heeding the word of constituents who say that Bush hasn't convinced them of the need to divert portions of Social Security to private accounts.
''The president has not done a great job in selling this plan," Brown-Waite said at a community meeting on Social Security on Thursday night at Saint Leo University in central Florida. ''Seniors are petrified that their Social Security that they've come to depend on . . . will be impacted in some way."
Brown-Waite, 61, represents more than 250,000 Social Security recipients, nearly half her district's voting-age population and the most of the 435 House members. She has a reputation for party loyalty and believes that something must be done to save Social Security from future deficits.
But she can't bring herself to support the president's call for personal accounts, at least not while her constituents worry over the prospect of their benefits being slashed, she said.
Brown-Waite's situation is emblematic of the struggles Bush faces as he tries to remake Social Security: The president has assured seniors that their benefits won't be cut, but retirees are skeptical.
At forums on Social Security she held a month ago, Brown-Waite said, seniors blasted her for seeking to tinker with their retirement funds.
''There is this overriding fear of cutting their Social Security," Brown-Waite said. ''I see that fear."
Members of Congress like Brown-Waite find themselves squeezed between their sense of party loyalty and the opposition of elderly constituents, who also happen to be a highly organized voting bloc. Brown-Waite summed it up succinctly: ''Damned if you do, and damned if you don't."
''What's important here is not just the number of people but the intensity of their opinions," said Michael D. Martinez, a political science professor at the University of Florida. ''For Republican members in Florida, it probably is particularly hard for them, since seniors are such a politically active group. But I don't know how much different they have it from members of Congress across the country."
Brown-Waite is known as a solid Republican. She gets high ratings from conservative groups and proudly carries a gun during her in-state travels. Her first election to Congress in 2002 owed much to a well-timed presidential visit. A large picture of her arm-in-arm with a smiling Vice President Dick Cheney hangs in her office in Brooksville.
When the president came to Tampa in February for a forum on Social Security, he gave Brown-Waite a ride in the presidential limo between the airport and the convention center. Bush made a personal appeal to the congresswoman, but Brown-Waite bluntly responded, ''I'm just not on board."
''It'll be OK," the president said, according to Brown-Waite. But Bush, she said, was not happy. Since then, she has received multiple invitations to visit the White House, but said she hasn't been able to find time to come by.
The fact that Brown-Waite is generally a loyal Republican makes her refusal to commit to Bush's plan particularly troublesome to some in the GOP. The conservative group Progress for America ran television ads in her district over the two-week Easter break, urging her to support personal accounts.
GOP-leaning groups are already discussing the possibility of supporting primary challengers to Brown-Waite and others if they stray from the party line on Social Security.
''If Republican members choose to obstruct this and aren't going to support a good bill, that's something we're going to have to look at," said Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, which began mounting primary challenges to moderate Republicans in the last election cycle. ''The Republican majorities should be embracing this and celebrating this opportunity. Some people are just politically paranoid."
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has begun compiling statements made by Brown-Waite that Democrats say are contradictory or represent positions that would hurt her own constituents. Brown-Waite unseated a Democratic incumbent in 2002, and the district remains closely divided.
''She's trying to have it both ways, but the voters are a little smarter than that," said Sarah Feinberg, a committee spokeswoman.
The AARP is spending millions on television advertising to sink Bush's plan, and the retiree group's newsletter arrives in tens of thousands of homes in Brown-Waite's district. Democratic groups have dispatched guest speakers to rail against Bush's plans at local retirement communities, and volunteers are distributing pamphlets at community meetings, seeking to keep Social Security intact.
''We don't want to see anything happen to the safety net that was there for us, and should be there for younger people too," said Harvey Martin of Timber Pines, a 73-year-old retiree. ''Social Security is not in a crisis."
Brown-Waite said she's optimistic that a Social Security bill can be passed, though its chances next year, when all House members are up for reelection, may be more remote than this year.
In the meantime, she said, Bush would be well-served by having more give-and-take, instead of fielding softball queries from hand-picked crowds.
''Let me tell you the difference between a GWB town-hall meeting -- George W. Bush -- and a GBW -- Ginny Brown-Waite -- town-hall meeting: I don't load the audience with just the choir," Brown-Waite recalled telling her fellow Republicans at a closed-door meeting about a month ago. ''He needs to have a GBW kind of meeting, where he fields some questions from the general population."