WASHINGTON -- When Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina proposed the broad outlines of a Social Security compromise last month, he was accused by conservatives of negotiating with himself. He changed that last Thursday by beginning to negotiate with the Democrats to achieve the breakthrough of personal retirement accounts.
Four Democratic senators met in Graham's office with him and two Republican committee chairmen. It was not really negotiating but the prelude to negotiating a bipartisan agreement. Graham put it to me this way: "Nobody has crossed the Rubicon yet, but maybe they can see it."
Crossing Graham's Rubicon would be agreeing to a grand bargain in which each side experiences pain. Democrats would accept the hated personal accounts that have become a primary policy goal of President Bush and the Republican Party. Republicans would accept a graduation in the payroll tax financing Social Security, raising the amount of taxable income while lowering the rate.
The meeting in Graham's office was but a first step, far from agreeing to anything. But the mere fact that they sat down with one another indicates a little progress. Graham is an aggressive first-termer, beginning his third year as a senator. But at his side Thursday were the Finance Committee chairman, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and the Budget Committee chairman, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. They have not specifically backed Graham's bill but accept the idea that everything is on the table.
Gregg is an old hand at trying to save Social Security through personal accounts, into which young workers would have the option of putting some of the money currently deducted for the payroll tax. In the late 1990s, Gregg had commitments for personal accounts from four prominent Democratic senators: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bob Kerrey, Chuck Robb and John Breaux. What's more, these Democrats accepted the idea without higher payroll taxes. The problem is that Bill Clinton was president, and he opposed any kind of personal accounts.
Now, all four Democrats buying into personal accounts are gone from the Senate. The four Democrats who met with Graham last week -- Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Max Baucus of Montana -- certainly are not committed to anything approaching Bush's proposal. Of these four, only Nelson could be called a moderate conservative. At best, from the White House point of view, the others are moderate liberals who occasionally defect from the party line.