The Note: More Painful and More Drastic

WASHINGTON, March 16 --

NEWS SUMMARY

When he comes to the podium in the press room at 10:15 am ET, President Bush will open with a statement on all of the Social Security goings-on, and then some discussion on the Iraqi national assembly.

What we expect from the questioning: Social Security, Social Security, nuclear option, nuclear option, nominating Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to be head of the World Bank, Leader DeLay, the budget, Hezbollah, Social Security. And at least two presidential jokes about the media.

Did we mention: Social Security?

In a unanimous vote yesterday, the U.S. Senate affirmed its commitment to foster a "solvent and permanently sustainable Social Security system."

The President -- who helpfully pointed out his own lead on this week's ABC News/Washington Post poll on Social Security -- will probably say that yesterday's Senate votes as evidence that the Congress shares his commitment to find a working, permanent solution to the Social Security, uh, dilemma.

The Senate Democratic caucus might well point out again that the resolution called for a bipartisan solution (as did the head of the Republican Conference, yet again, yesterday, which they say won't be possible so long as personal/private accounts are a central feature of the system).

In another vote, this one 50-50, the Senate blanched at rejecting a Social Security proposal that would cause big benefit cuts or a big increase in the debt.

Which leaves the debate pretty much where it was at the beginning of the day -- although some press coverage suggests that the second vote was bigger than the first and more ominous.

And as Congress prepares to recess for two long weeks, heightened interest group activity on both sides ("grassroots," as the highly paid Washington consultants who plan it like to call it) will probably not move Sen. Lieberman to be any less skeptical about personal retirement accounts or Sen. Chafee to be any more willing to borrow billions of dollars to find them.

If Democrats say that this fight is over, they're not being entirely honest.

Why else would an outside group affiliated with them called Americans United to Protect Social Security be embarking on such an ambitious, mutlimillion-dollar, 29-state, 60-day mobilization to "protect Social Security" if the dog can't and won't hunt?

This fight will be over when Sen. Chuck Grassley tells Jane Norman that he can't get a bill through his committee. But until then, if you're a Republican, be like your business lobby:

Either step up the fight, slowly weaken public resistance to retirement accounts, wait until this fall, win a vote, and get props from the White House and a financial pay-off decades down the road.

Or keep a low profile and hope that President Bush's tiger-like persistence forges a compromise that doesn't do too much political damage.

When the President first enunciated his Social Security principles, business groups, prodded by the White House, said they'd spend millions to influence public opinion. That was predicated on the Administration's announcing its support for a precise proposal early.

"We haven't done it because Bush doesn't have a plan yet," said the Free Enterprise Fund's Steve Moore. "It's hard for anyone to mobilize conservative activists and conservative money until we all know that it's a plan that's worth mobilizing for."

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