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GOP tries to woo Democrats with new Social Security strategy

By Associated Press
Published May 18, 2005

WASHINGTON - House Republicans are moving to super-size President Bush's Social Security overhaul with measures aimed at breaking Democrats' united front against it - such as bolstering private pension plans and improving nonretiree benefits for widows, children and the disabled.

Democrats say they will not be tempted by what one member has labeled "artificial sweeteners" as long as any bill includes the private investment accounts Bush is pushing.

"They're trying to get the goods through customs that way," Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Tuesday. "In my view, you put aside the insistence on privatizing Social Security, you'll get a retirement agreement in short order."

Rep. Bill Thomas, the committee's chairman, is architect of the new strategy. His panel has a hearing Thursday to discuss, among other things, ideas for ensuring that participants in company and union-sponsored defined-benefit pension plans get the retirement checks they were promised.

"To only deal with Social Security is to ignore what else is going on in the society," the California Republican said at an earlier hearing.

Thomas has previously succeeded in passing a White House initiative by cloaking it in member-friendly provisions.

In 2003, it was the administration's economic stimulus package, which he helped pass after changing it to include a cut in dividend taxes, instead of eliminating them, as the president wanted. Last year, the chairman succeeded in winning support for a $136-billion corporate tax bill by including various special-interest perks, such as a bailout for tobacco farmers.

Thomas hopes to break the Social Security stalemate by broadening the president's initiative to include language appealing to his opponents, perhaps including a provision to expand access to tax-protected retirement accounts such as Roth IRAs. The chairman has to date talked in generalities, even saying that the personal accounts pushed by the president "can take a number of forms."

While Democrats have remained united against the accounts, there was a fissure this week when Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., announced over the objections of his party's leaders that he would file his own Social Security legislation. Republicans, after months of hearing their own reject Bush's ideas, heralded the break in the opposition's ranks, even though Wexler's bill included a 6 percent increase in payroll taxes that Bush has already ruled out.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., another member of the Ways and Means panel, acknowledged the success that Thomas has enjoyed in the past using an expand-and-conquer strategy but said it won't happen this time.

"Bill isn't going to win this one," he said.

[Last modified May 18, 2005, 00:51:10]

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