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Thursday, February 17, 2005 - Page updated at 02:45 p.m

Democrats digging in over Social Security

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats said yesterday they have more than enough votes to block President Bush's bid to allow private accounts in Social Security, increasing pressure on the president to offer enough compromises or incentives to win over at least a handful of Democrats.

"President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security. It will not happen," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters. He initially said all 44 Senate Democrats had made commitments to oppose so-called personal accounts. Later acknowledging he had not spoken with all 44, Reid said, "I don't know of a single Democratic senator" who will back the plan.

Because Senate rules require 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to overcome delaying tactics, Democrats appear positioned to block Bush's partial privatization efforts unless he makes concessions that attract moderate Democrats from states that Bush carried last fall.

But Bush's challenge goes beyond the Democrats and Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., who generally votes with them. Two moderate Republicans — Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe of Maine — have sharply criticized the notion of private accounts, and at least two others expressed serious reservations. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he hasn't tried to measure the plan's support among the 55 GOP senators.

Bush has said personal accounts are essential to shore up young workers' faith in Social Security and to help address long-term financial challenges facing the system. Many Democrats say individual accounts would add to the federal budget deficit and force at least temporary cuts in Social Security benefits. They say the plan is the wrong solution for a system that is not in crisis.

Private accounts would redirect some of the payroll taxes that workers contribute to Social Security, investing them in stocks and bonds, which historically have increased in value more rapidly than Treasury bills.

Several Republicans have urged the White House to explain Bush's plans more fully and vigorously, starting with tonight's State of the Union address. They note that Bush can be highly persuasive when he pushes hard on a priority, as he did with tax cuts in his first term.

Despite Reid's comments, "there are a lot of Democrats who are open to talking" about private accounts, said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

In tonight's address, Bush will explain why he thinks personal accounts will bolster Social Security's long-term financial health, a White House official said. Tomorrow and Friday, Bush will visit five politically competitive states that are home to seven Democratic senators, four of whom face re-election next year. Of those, only Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has talked of perhaps being open to private accounts.

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Nelson told home-state reporters on a conference call that he will look at Bush's Social Security plan "very cautiously, carefully and conservatively."

Meanwhile yesterday, Treasury Secretary John Snow visited Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D. — two other targets of Bush's tour — to discuss Social Security. Baucus told reporters he would listen to Snow's pitch but thus far, "I don't see the will" on the White House's part to compromise with Democrats.

Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, another state Bush will visit, said the president is "going to have to radically change his approach" to enlist any Democrats. She said she would favor personal accounts if they encouraged saving by young people, but "diverting their payroll taxes will not encourage savings, and I think it would devastate current beneficiaries."

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