WASHINGTON - When President Bush hits the road to promote his Social Security plan, he has tough words for lawmakers who would put off action until another day.
"The question confronting the Congress is, 'Do you have the political will to do something about it?"' Bush told a crowd yesterday in Galveston, Texas.
In private at the White House, though, Bush is playing the good cop to his public bad cop.
In casual meetings behind closed doors, Bush is reassuring lawmakers that he will cover them politically if they join his effort to revamp the retirement program. His persuasion effort is more about stroking skittish Republicans than demanding loyalty from them.
Bush's meetings - with more than 135 senators and House members over the past three months, according to the White House - have yielded no tangible progress.
There is little consensus, even among Republicans, about dealing with Social Security's future. In an effort to break the impasse, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who leads the Finance Committee, opened hearings on the issue yesterday.
Administration officials say they are not concerned about the lack of tangible legislative proposals at this point. The purpose of the meetings, said White House spokesman Trent Duffy, is "for the president to share his commitment" to addressing the problem, to listen to what lawmakers are hearing from constituents, and to arm them with information so they can help advance the concept.
"He says publicly, 'We've got to act,' and he says that privately," Duffy added. "He also says, 'I feel your pain.' "
A look inside the sessions demonstrates the difficulties facing Bush as he tries to round up support for changing Social Security.
Although Bush has emphasized the need for a bipartisan compromise, most of his group meetings this year have been with Republicans. The sessions, usually in groups of 10 or 15, are also attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and, sometimes, Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser. They are often held in the spacious living room of Bush's private residence.
There, in comfortable chairs and sofas in a parlor overlooking the National Mall and the Washington Monument over nuts, Goldfish crackers and soft drinks, Bush puts his guests at ease by engaging in his specialty: the laid-back soft sell.
"It was a very informal atmosphere, and it lasted for some time. The president wasn't pushing us, he was more just listening," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican. "He gives you a comfort level so you're not afraid to disagree with him. The intimidation factor is zero."
Shaw described the tone of the meeting as "light," and he acknowledged that there is little debate over policy ideas that break with Bush's position.
Shaw has introduced a measure that would create private Social Security accounts as a separately financed add-on to the program, a decidedly different approach from the one favored by Bush, who wants younger workers to fund the accounts with a portion of their payroll taxes.
When guests offer ideas at odds with the president's, Bush "listens politely," Shaw said.
When they ask for specifics about the president's plan , such as the technical details of the personal retirement accounts, Bush usually demurs.
"He's really said, 'I'm selling the problem. ... The solution comes from Capitol Hill' " said Republican Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas.
That has frustrated some attendees, at least one of whom advised Bush to begin discussing details.
"The time has come when we've got to start putting some of the specifics out there about how we're going to fix the solvency," said Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who is sponsoring a measure that pairs personal accounts for younger workers with benefit cuts and tax increases to ensure solvency.
Bush has talked at length about modernizing Social Security by adding personal accounts, but he has yet to get behind any one proposal for closing the looming financial gap. Actuaries project the program will begin paying out more than it collects in 2017, due to retirement of the massive baby boom, and that Social Security will become financially insolvent by 2041.
Restoring solvency is virtually certain to require unpopular steps such as raising taxes or cutting benefits, and Kolbe told Bush he needed to start talking candidly about them.
"He may just not be ready to be there yet," Kolbe said, but "at some point fairly soon we're going to have to start talking about specifics."
Congressional aides say it appears that Bush's advisers choose guests with an eye toward those who may be feeling particularly strong discomfort at home about the Social Security overhaul effort.
Rep. Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican and a longtime friend of Bush, attended a meeting earlier this month. His invitation came after he was accused by a political opponent of "playing 'hide and seek' to avoid getting pinned down" on Social Security, and local papers reported he was getting "an earful" of negative feedback on Bush's plan from constituents.
"The president's listening and trying to take the pulse of members," Bass said.
Also attending that session with Bush was Michigan Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a Republican who had been castigated by the United Automobile Workers, a formidable political force in his Grand Rapids district, for failing to hold meetings about Social Security or show up when the union held its forum on the subject.
"You can tell the administration definitely does its homework when it decides who to call down," said a senior House Republican leadership aide. "They'll read a quote or something, see a poll, and they have a sense of who they need to get in there for some face time."
When Bush isn't holding casual group meetings at the White House, he often buttonholes lawmakers on the way to appearances in their districts, using the comforts of Air Force One or a ride in his armored presidential limousine as an opportunity to cozy up to them and listen to their concerns.
Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who has said he's willing to work with Bush on the issue, got the limo treatment when Bush visited Omaha in February.
"They're trying to reach out a lot and make it clear we're part of the solution," Brady said. "That is good to hear, because if we're already catching heck politically for it, we might as well try to get something done."