Reporter's Notebook: Bush May Turn Setbacks into Assets

President Bush has proven to be one of the more adept and agile politicians of the modern era. Time and again, he and his political team have shown the ability to turn potential political vulnerabilities -- think 9/11 -- into weapons deftly applied to opponents. Democrats would do well to remember that as they gloat over two of the larger political stories out here -- the fight over Social Security reform and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's ethics controversies.

Friday in Falls Church, Va., the president not only condemned opponents -- presumably Democrats -- for fighting his Social Security proposal, he promised they will be punished.

"I have a duty to put ideas on the table, and I'm putting them on the table," he said. "Those who block meaningful reform are going to be held to account in the polls."

President Bush is embracing what some call "progressive indexing" -- the lowest income recipients will see their Social Security benefits preserved, but future benefits for middle income earners and the wealthy will be reduced. By doing so, the president will be able to make the case, even if his plan fails, that he tried to address the fact that Social Security is not sustainable through the next few generations, and something needs to change.

Could voters come to see this as courage, especially if Democrats are offering no serious alternative solutions?

"All I hear from members of Congress and from people on the outside is, 'No plan,' " Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said at a meeting this week of the Senate Finance Committee, which he chairs. "Those of you that are bad-mouthing every other suggestion out there, suggest your own plans."

To Democrats slamming the president's proposed Social Security benefit cuts, Grassley pointedly observed that "doing nothing is not an option, because doing nothing is a cut in benefits. Grandpa Grassley gets Social Security, but my granddaughter, when she retires 56 years from now, if we do nothing, is gonna get this cut that you're talking about."

House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said on Friday: "What the president has done is fundamentally courageous, and what Republicans will do will be to follow the president."

On the other big issue buzzing around Washington, House Republicans this week retreated on proposed ethics rules that would have made it tougher to launch an investigation through the House Ethics Committee.

Democrats "took issue with process," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "Well, I am willing to step back. We had a long discussion about that, I think we need to move forward in the ethics process. I think there are issues out there that need to be discussed. I think there is a member [of Congress], especially on our side, that needs to have the process move forward so he can clear his name."

Democrats Face Ethics Questions, Too

In the short term, this further highlights the travails of that member -- DeLay -- who may have violated ethics rules against accepting trips paid for by lobbyists and foreign agents. But does this not also open the door for potential charges against Democrats?

According to a new study by Politicalmoneyline.com, in terms of the money spent on the trips, the top 10 members of Congress who availed themselves of these privately funded trips were Democrats. The list includes Senator Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who is mulling a run for the presidency in 2008, and who took $160,577 worth of trips, according to the study, often to posh resorts like the Greenbrier in West Virginia. DeLay, incidentally, ranked 28th.

The focus on DeLay's problems has many in Congress concerned about their own behavior and revising past disclosure reports -- including Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, a Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, and staffers for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who did not properly disclose 12 trips.

These fights on Social Security and congressional ethics seem like potential winners for the Democrats. But beneath the surface could lie treacherous terrain.

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