Social Security ceasefire

Posted: Jul 21, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sen. Lindsey Graham, the aggressive freshman Republican from South Carolina, had waited long enough and last week acted on his own, without a green light from a displeased White House. He began circulating among senators and House members of both parties a letter that is intended to radically reduce violence in the bitter Social Security wars. "This is a ceasefire declaration," Graham told me.

Addressed to the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic campaign committees in both houses, the letter promises, "We will no longer turn a blind eye to political attack ads that accuse responsible reform advocates of wanting to dismantle Social Security or slash benefits of current retirees." Contending that "it is time for the demagoguery to stop," signers of the Graham letter "pledge to defend" all candidates "who support Social Security modernization."

Circulating the letter with Graham are two moderate congressmen -- Democrat Charlie Stenholm of Texas and Republican Jim Kolbe of Arizona -- who have sought such non-aggression pacts in the past. The most important signatory so far is Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, the centrist Democrat who often tips the Senate's balance of power. Even if only Breaux and a few other Democrats accept the ceasefire as expected, that undermines the party's relentless attack on Social Security reformers.

When a copy of the letter arrived at the White House last week, there was consternation rather than jubilation -- mainly because it calls on President Bush to do something well beyond present plans. "It is time for this Congress and this president to solve the problems plaguing Social Security," the letter declares. "Inaction is no longer an option. The longer we wait to take the necessary reforms, the harder the task becomes."

That admonition does not fit George W. Bush's timetable. In re-election plans being delicately tuned by the president's team, politically risky reforms -- especially Social Security -- are postponed until after the 2004 election. Indeed, circulating the ceasefire declaration without advance notice to the White House or its approval reflects unspoken frustration with Bush's domestic policy by Graham and other conservatives.

The concept of Graham's initiative was embraced on a smaller scale in a 1998 agreement by Stenholm with Kolbe and two other Republican congressmen, Nick Smith of Michigan and Mark Sanford, now the governor of South Carolina. All were supporting private Social Security investment accounts. When Stenholm was accused by Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of raiding the Social Security trust fund in the midst of a tough re-election campaign that year, the Republican congressmen came to his defense. When Smith came under similar Democratic attack, Stenholm defended him.

Stenholm was one of the rare Democrats worried by such an attack, because few members of his party advocate private Social Security accounts. With House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt designating the 2002 election a "referendum on Social Security," Republican reformers -- including Senate candidate Lindsey Graham -- encountered a withering attack. Some Republicans retreated, but Graham did not, was elected and decided to propose a ceasefire.

Additional Democratic prospects to sign the letter include Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware and Reps. John Tanner of Tennessee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Gene Taylor of Mississippi. That surely does not constitute a massive Democratic exodus from Gephardt's reform-bashing, but it shatters the image of implacable determination to inflict pain on any Republican who would touch Social Security.

The Graham letter quotes Bush's 2000 campaign statement that "too many times, Social Security has been demagogued to frighten the elderly for political advantage." Immediately after the 2002 election, a Bush policy aide surprised a meeting of conservatives by giving the impression that Social Security reform was high on the president's agenda. In fact, however, that issue has been postponed until the second term, and Bush's political agents are not pleased by what Graham is doing.

Behind Graham's initiative is unhappiness by conservatives with Bush's political strategy, starting with the education bill and most recently reflected by signals of the president's willingness to sign any prescription drug bill. While Bush advisers are displeased with Graham trying by himself to change the political landscape, his action reflected unwillingness to postpone real reforms until a second term.