One month after President Bush announced them, his proposals for Social Security reform are fast losing political momentum in Congress and with the public.
Republican lawmakers who tried to sell the president's ideas during a weeklong congressional recess returned to Washington discouraged by the skeptical reaction from constituents. And some Republican House members didn't even bother to try, as House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas noted with irritation.
For political reasons, the Senate would have to act on any reforms first; the House won't vote until the Senate does. But Republican Senate leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said — and then later slightly backed off — that the reforms might have to wait until next year.
Some political analysts believe that would be the kiss of death for reform until a new president takes office. In 2006, the reasoning goes, the members of Congress up for re-election would be reluctant to touch the issue, and in the two years after that, Bush would be an even lamer duck and Congress would be preoccupied with presidential politics.
The centerpiece of the Bush plan is private accounts, allowing younger workers to divert part of their Social Security taxes into a limited selection of stock and bond funds. However, the public quickly grasped two key points: private accounts do nothing to address Social Security's long-term solvency, which Bush had said all along was the real problem; and that the private accounts would have to be offset by benefit cuts. Bush tends to spackle over both points in discussing the plan.
Bush did at least get Congress talking about Social Security, and a number of reform proposals are being floated on Capitol Hill. While the White House says Bush welcomes fresh ideas, he is said to be privately opposed to most of them.
The president is nothing if not bold, and he, Vice President Dick Cheney, Treasury Secretary John Snow and other top administration officials are about to embark on a 60-day, 60-city barnstorming tour to sell the president's plan — which, it should be pointed out, nobody outside the White House has seen in its entirety.
Those 60 days could be critical. If Bush can't sway the public, Social Security reform itself isn't necessarily dead, but his particular plan is. The impetus for change will pass into other hands.