President Bush may still have an uphill climb in the Senate, but the prospects for passage of a Social Security bill to his liking seem to be improving in the House. Over the last two months, several House Republicans have expressed skepticism about Bush’s ideas. Bill Thomas, the chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the issue, suggested that Bush’s plan would be a “dead horse” because Congress would modify it so much. Rob Simmons, a congressman from Connecticut, wondered aloud about the urgency of dealing in advance with the program’s fiscal imbalance–saying that he would be dead by the time there was a problem.
But the White House swayed some congressional Republicans at their retreat last weekend. Majority Whip Roy Blunt, who is in charge of counting the votes for House Republicans, tells NRO that even the skeptics among his colleagues are moving in the president’s direction. This week, Rep. Simmons released a statement that referred favorably to personal accounts (while still cautioning against drastic change).
“I’m not naively optimistic, but I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Rep. Blunt. Support for reform along the lines Bush has in mind is already the “prevailing” view among House Republicans and is on its way to being the “preponderant” view.
Blunt thinks that one argument for personal accounts that will prove effective with his colleagues, and with the voters, is that they are “115 million lockboxes”: “For the first time, that surplus we’ve been collecting for Social Security for a generation really [will] go to Social Security.”
The congressman breaks with the conventional wisdom about the political risks for Republicans in enacting cuts in future benefits. “The month after we get it done”–i.e., enact a bill–”52 million Social Security checks [will] go out. They go out the next month and the next month and the next month. And they’re every bit as big as they have ever been. If [we] get [a bill passed] this year, you get 12 of those checks before the next election and 36 before the next presidential election. And in between, people get statements saying here’s the size of your personal account.” The risk, according to Blunt, is that Republicans vote for a future benefit cut that does not pass. In that case, he says, Democrats will be able to tell seniors that Republicans tried to cut their benefits and there will be no reality check.
Interestingly, Blunt also thinks that the upside for Republicans may be a bit lower than some enthusiasts for reform believe. “It does move the country dramatically toward an ownership society,” he says. “That’s good for us initially and it moves us toward a temporary majority. But there’s no such thing as a permanent majority, and the Democrats will have to change. A majority of them will view competitiveness, the global economy, and the place where they work differently, and they’ll certainly view the government differently than [if it were still] a 1960 economy where 10 percent of Americans owned stock.”
Rep. Blunt’s “cautious optimism” can be split in two: The optimism is about the House, and the caution is about the Senate. Bush cannot take the House for granted, but at the end of the day Bush and the House Republican leadership are likely to be able to get a bill through it if the Senate moves first. And that’s more optimism than you would get from reading some of the newspapers.