President Bush’s plan to shore up Social Security by reducing promised benefits for all but low-income retirees is meeting resistance from some Senate Republicans, casting new doubt on Bush’s top domestic priority, Republican aides and officials said.
A USA Today/CNN poll released on Monday also showed Bush with the worst approval-disapproval ratings of his presidency — 35 percent to 58 percent — on the Social Security issue. The proposal he backed last week for “progressive indexing” was opposed 54 percent to 38 percent.
Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Free Enterprise Fund and a vocal supporter of Bush’s push to let workers invest some payroll taxes in private retirement accounts, called the new plan “politically perilous for Republicans.”
The White House hoped unveiling the solvency plan would bolster Bush’s campaign to add private investment accounts to the retirement system after surveys showing he was ending a 60-day Social Security roadshow with less support for the idea than when he started.
In the narrowly divided Senate, even a few defections among the Republican majority could scuttle Bush’s Social Security plan, which faces solid Democratic opposition.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan lashed out at Democratic critics for taking a “do-nothing approach” to the Social Security problem.
Democrats have asserted Bush’s plan would result in the biggest-ever Social Security benefit cuts for the middle class.
“The do-nothing approach means massive benefit cuts for all Social Security beneficiaries, at all levels,” McClellan said.
So far, Republican Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Sam Brownback of Kansas have publicly expressed reservations about Bush’s new approach, which critics say would replace the popular retirement system with what amounts to a welfare program for the poor.
“I don’t think that’s the sort of solution we ought to be going at,” Brownback told MSNBC when asked if he would support a sliding scale for cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security.
Asked if he would support a plan that would result in future benefit cuts of 30 percent to 40 percent for people who make between $59,000 and $90,000, Allen told NBC, “I do not care to reduce the retirement security for particularly middle-income working people.”
Aides said members of a group of moderate Senate Republicans were also wary of Bush’s approach but had yet to speak out publicly.
“I wish the president the best of luck with this,” said a senior aide to a Senate Republican. “But he doesn’t face re-election in a couple years and I think that’s something a lot of members are thinking about.”
The aide said the proposal had so far only served to make moderates “queasy.”
“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of members come out and say they like this proposal. … It’s an explicit benefit cut and an ideological change in how Social Security is viewed,” the aide added.
Michael Tanner of the CATO Institute said a lot of Republicans were “very nervous about it” because “it’s perceived as benefit cuts.”
“The fact is, they are cuts from a promise that can’t be kept,” Tanner said.
Moore said he was “worried about the political repercussions,” and that he was “really torn” about Bush’s new strategy, saying he should be focusing instead on private accounts.
But Democratic opposition could backfire, he added, saying, “It will only reinforce the idea that Democrats aren’t serious on Social Security and this is a party that is completely obstructionist.”