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As Congress takes up Bush's plan, the obstacles are many and the odds long

WASHINGTON—President Bush didn't suffer a significant defeat in Congress in his first four years, even when the odds seemed to be working against him. But his vision of a partially privatized Social Security system will push his luck and test his skill like nothing he's promoted before.

For Bush, the time is short, the opposition fierce and his party's support of the idea soft. Never before has he faced such an array of obstacles, and Social Security could be his Waterloo.

"He has a major political fight," conceded Michael Tanner, a Social Security expert at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center. Tanner is working closely with the White House on the president's plan. "We're talking about changing one of the underpinnings of the New Deal. On the other hand, this is a president who has never lost."

Outlining his plan in his State of the Union address this week, Bush gave Congress plenty of leeway on how to devise a broad package that cures the retirement system's long-term solvency problem. But he made it clear that his proposal to let younger workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private accounts had to be a cornerstone of any overhaul.

"What we're talking about here is helping evolve the Social Security system, modernize the system to reflect the current way people save," Bush said Friday in Omaha, Neb., on the second day of a two-day sales pitch.

By putting his muscle only behind the most controversial element of what's likely to be sweeping legislation, Bush has stimulated an avalanche of additional proposals in Congress, many of them contradictory. Finding agreement on measures that reduce the long-term costs of Social Security will require deft legislating.

Some Republicans, such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, want to take this opportunity to jettison the payroll tax as the source of Social Security revenue and replace it with a sales tax. Others, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, want to increase the level of income that's subject to the payroll tax, now $90,000. Some want to change the way that retirement benefits rise by a wage-based index; others fret that that step would reduce benefits too drastically.

First, Bush will have to convince skeptical members of his own party about the merits of individual accounts. Several Republicans have voiced unease because, without some type of revenue increase, such accounts could increase the federal budget deficit by up to $2 trillion over 10 years. Others have worried that by relying on the markets, the plan would inject too much risk into retirement security.

"We just can't rush pell-mell into making any dramatic changes until we ascertain the nature of the problem, the level of urgency, and the dimensions and scopes of the issues that we really have to analyze," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which will write the Social Security bill.

Some of Bush's biggest backers acknowledge that he has a struggle ahead.

"It is very apparent to me that we have a lot of work to do, not just among the American public, but within our conference," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican Senate leader.

Even if Bush corrals most Republicans, he'll also need Democrats, particularly in the Senate, where any plan to overhaul Social Security will require 60 of 100 votes to pass. Such a super-majority would be necessary to overcome any Democratic filibusters—the prized tradition of unlimited debate, which can be ordered to end only if three-fifths of the Senate agrees.

Democrats—who defend Social Security as a cornerstone of party identity—have shown rare unity against Bush's private-account plan. In the past, his tax cuts and Medicare prescription-drug plan divided them, attracting enough bipartisan support to win.

This time, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has forged such a united front of opposition that—if it holds—it would be able to block any Social Security plan that diverts payroll taxes to individual accounts.

"President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security," Reid said this week. "It will not happen."

On Thursday, 43 Democrats and independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont signed a letter to Bush calling any proposal that increases the budget deficit "immoral, unacceptable and unsustainable." The only Democrat not to sign the letter was Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who joined Bush in Omaha on Friday but hasn't embraced his plan.

It may be significant, however, that the letter to Bush framed Democratic opposition only on the basis of deficit spending. It appeared to leave the door open to considering investment accounts in principle.

The debate will be greatly influenced by the massive lobbying and advertising campaign that advocates and opponents already have launched. Both sides may find lessons from the Clinton-era health-care debate. The most effective ad campaign against the Clinton plan was launched by the health-insurance industry. It featured an anxious couple, "Harry and Louise," struggling over their kitchen table to comprehend how the plan would change their health-care coverage.

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who helped air the Harry and Louise ads, said today's political environment seemed ripe for a similar campaign, particularly by the AARP, the powerful seniors lobby.

"We started that advertising three weeks before the president's initiative, much like AARP started this time," McInturff said. "If you try to frame an issue, you try to get the first word in, not the last word. ... They will work very, very hard to keep telling people in (that) age range that, in fact, there is a lot more impact than they might imagine."

All these factors could drag out the legislative process, and the influence of second-term presidents generally starts to wane in their second years.

"If it doesn't happen this year,' said Tanner of the Cato Institute, "it will be a long time before it happens."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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