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Democrats believe they have the upper hand over Bush Social Security plan

WASHINGTON—Emboldened by public reaction during recent trips home, Democrats returned to Congress on Tuesday claiming the upper hand over President Bush and his proposal to partly privatize Social Security.

A key conservative strategist all but agreed, saying Bush appears unlikely to win on the issue this year and warning that the president might first have to win a fractious battle within his own party before he can prevail in Congress.

And in a third blow to the centerpiece of Bush's second-term domestic agenda, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, while saying the fight can still be won, lamented Tuesday that so far he's failed to convince two-thirds of his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives to help sell the president's plan.

Polls as well as comments made in dozens of recent town-hall meetings around the country suggest that the president has failed to build public support for his ambitious proposal—and could be losing ground.

A new Gallup poll this week showed that 35 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush is handling Social Security, his worst showing on any major issue and the lowest on that issue since he took office. A mid-February NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed support for private accounts dropping to 40 percent from 46 percent since the president launched his aggressive push for them with his State of the Union speech earlier in February.

"It's certainly hurting badly," Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the second-ranking House Democrat, said of Bush's proposal after his colleagues measured reaction during last week's recess from Washington.

"In two months, the president has created a firestorm," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. After touring his state from Long Island to Buffalo last week to drum up opposition, he said, "the reaction to the president's plan got stronger and stronger and stronger against it."

"The only question left is when does the president come to his political senses, as well as substantive senses, and say let's get rid of privatization," Schumer said.

They and other Democrats urged Bush to drop his proposal for private accounts financed with Social Security taxes. Instead, they said, he should seek bipartisan negotiations akin to those in 1983 that shored up Social Security by raising taxes and gradually increasing the age at which people can claim full retirement benefits.

"Once that's off the table, it's a piece of cake," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., referring to Bush's private-accounts proposal.

Among conservatives and Republicans, there's disagreement over how quickly the president must build momentum and support to keep prospects for private accounts alive.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which would write any Social Security legislation in the Senate, said this week that Bush had only about three weeks to start turning public opinion. After that, Congress will go on another long recess and, barring a change in sentiment at home, could turn its attention to other business for the rest of this year.

"I don't think there's enough political momentum to get it done this year," said Stephen Moore, an influential conservative activist and the president of a group called the Free Enterprise Fund, which supports Bush's push for private accounts.

Moore agreed with Democrats that the president has lost ground, in his own party and in the country.

"It hasn't gone well over the last month," Moore said in an interview. "We're still no further along than we were on Election Day. Bush's big push over the last few weeks hasn't moved the numbers."

Moore said he thought the president could still win congressional approval sometime next year. "When he invests political capital, don't bet against him," he said.

Despite urging from party leaders, only about one-third of House Republicans held town-hall meetings with constituents last week to sell Bush's approach. In some states, including Michigan and Minnesota, not a single Republican met with constituents to talk about Social Security.

"Not enough," DeLay said Tuesday. "I have been a little disappointed only a third of our members have had meetings."

Still, he said there was time and room to maneuver.

"Members are aware there is work to do. They know we still have a lot of work to do. This is the mother of all issues. ... This is very difficult," DeLay said. "I know the press would like to write the story (that) we're running for the hills. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Bush, who spent last week in Europe, will return to the Social Security campaign trail Friday with events in Indiana and New Jersey.

"We're very much in the early stages of the legislative process," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Tuesday. "We're very much in the early stages of the outreach to the American people. This is a process that has really just begun."

Also, Senate Democrats will press their case against the president's proposals, with events in Philadelphia and New York on Friday aimed at rivaling Bush's Jersey pitch in media markets that reach both ends of the state, then with other town-hall meetings on the topic across the country through the weekend.

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NOTE: The Gallup poll of 1,008 adults was conducted Feb. 25-27 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of 1008 adults was conducted Feb. 10-14 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.)

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(Knight Ridder correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050301 SOCIALSECURITY

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