Social Security overhaul seems to be the Bush administration's first priority for 2005. To gauge the prospects of success, it may be helpful to compare Bush's formidable task with the No. 1 goal of the incoming Clinton administration in 1993, health-care finance overhaul. On the surface, Clinton's odds of a win looked better in early 1993 than Bush's do today.
But Bush actually has a better chance of prevailing. Keeping in mind that in the early stages Clinton had offered few details of his plan, just as Bush has been unspecific so far, the policy environment for Bush today looks better than it was for Clinton 12 years ago.
Most Washington observers in early 1993 thought that Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton would pass a health care plan. The polls showed public demand. The Clintons had big Democratic majorities in Congress -- 57-43 in the Senate, 259-176 in the House. Not all Democrats were reliable liberals, but most were in favor of expanding government to help ordinary people.
The relevant committees had able and friendly chairmen -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Kennedy in the Senate, Dan Rostenkowski and John Dingell in the House. All were of a mood to help the new president and first lady. Important Republicans -- notably Bob Dole, ranking member on Senate finance -- were sympathetic, too. Political pros could be forgiven for expecting a Clinton health care plan to get through.
Compare the situation of Bush on Social Security today. The polls do show majorities in favor of individual investment accounts as part of Social Security. But they also show voters favoring Democrats over Republicans on the issue. Bush's majorities are smaller than Clinton's -- 55-45 in the Senate, 232-203 in the House. And as in 1993, not all majority lawmakers can be relied on to support their president.
House Republicans are particularly skittish. Anyone who has accompanied a congressman as he makes the rounds in his district will know why. Few people will go out of their way to see their congressman, and so he appears mostly before captive audiences -- schoolchildren and senior citizens. And at the senior citizens' center, the first question always is, "You aren't going to take away my Social Security, are you?"
House Republicans would like the Senate to vote first on a overhaul bill. But it's not clear whether Senate Republicans can clear the 60-vote hurdle if Democrats filibuster.
House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas has shown he can pass tough bills on party lines. But Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley is more inclined to seek bipartisan agreement. And few if any Democrats seem inclined to line up with Bush on the issue.