Game Clock Running Out on Social Security Plan?

I have a friend I occasionally watch TV sports with. Invariably, in the waning minutes of a basketball game, a player hits a clutch shot to put his team up by a seemingly insurmountable margin and my friend yells "it's over!" It's become a running joke, as earlier and earlier in the game he proclaims "it's over" and I roll my eyes.

Well, if my friend were watching the Social Security debate being played out in Washington these days, he might well be tempted to shout "it's over."

Yes, it's laughably early in the game for either side to declare victory; a key player could get into foul trouble; momentum can shift. But as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley begins the process of trying to report an overhaul plan out of his committee, one gets the sense that his team, plucky as it may be, is simply overmatched.

The two sides have been warming up for months, the Democrats playing with a unity and cohesion that they've rarely shown on any issue in recent years. Nary a single Democrat has wavered from opposition to any kind of overhaul that involves so-called "carve-outs," which are private personal accounts funded with money diverted from Social Security payroll taxes. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been working behind the scenes to find some common ground with Democrats, sounded frustrated this week. He told reporters Democrats are "united around the idea that accounts should not destroy the function of Social Security as FDR envisioned it."

Graham spoke as Democrats marched side by side out of the Capitol to a union-sponsored rally where Franklin D. Roosevelt's grandson James Roosevelt was on stage introducing and honoring the lawmakers for their solidarity. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid invoked the Democrats' favorite all-purpose denunciation, calling the president's private accounts a "risky scheme." He also promised that Democrats would not "let President Bush and the Republicans weaken the most successful social program in the history of the world."

While this team of Democrats has been passing to the open man and playing tough defense on Social Security, Republicans have been dribbling the ball off their feet and questioning the game plan.

Olympia Snowe of Maine has long been skeptical about the wisdom of private accounts, and she was so again at the Senate Finance Committee's first open session on the subject this week. "Social Security became the bedrock of support for seniors in my state precisely because it's defined and guaranteed," she said. "What cost and what risk is it worth to erode the guaranteed benefit?"

No Democrat could have put the question better.

Yet it's not only the party's Northeastern moderates raising doubts about the president's plan. Republican Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming expressed concern about the level of borrowing it would take to fund the transition to private accounts. Grassley can't afford to lose any Republicans if he is going to get a bill out of his committee and onto the Senate floor. Yet beyond that challenge, Republican leaders are wary of bringing any bill to the floor without at least some support from Democrats.

Meanwhile, President Bush has been barnstorming the country, playing his own game before enthusiastic (if carefully screened) crowds. Yet the president and his principal proposal have been losing ground in the larger public. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found approval for the idea of private accounts had dropped by 11 percentage points and fallen below 50 percent since Mr. Bush began his 60-day tour. Democrats joke that they hope the president will extend his campaign into the summer.

As anyone who watches pro basketball can attest, the teams don't get really serious about things until the final minutes of the contest. And this match may still be in the first quarter. Opponents who underestimated President Bush in the past usually wound up losing. Moreover, in this Congress, Republicans usually get what they want.

But this time the game looks and feels different. It's probably too early to declare this game over. But as the sports columnists say, without a major reversal in momentum, it is.

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