The Hill

GOP, Dems to huddle

Patrick O'Connor

A group of five Republicans and four Democrats in the House has arranged to sit down with AARP CEO Bill Novelli tomorrow in the Capitol to explore solutions to the contentious issue of Social Security reform.

The meeting comes as the Bush administration winds down its "60 Stops in 60 Days" tour that has failed to generate much support for the president's plans.

The president and Republican leaders in both chambers of Congress will begin working to peel off Hill Democrats as they negotiate the details of reform policy in coming months.

The meeting, which was organized by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) in a bold stroke for the first-year member, is the first known discussion between AARP and House members from both sides of the aisle.

Other Republican participants were expected to include Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Rep. Jim McCrery (La.), chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, and Reps. John Doolittle (Calif.), Jack Kingston (Ga.) and Anne Northup (Ky.), chairwoman of the Retirement Security Communications Team within the GOP conference.

Democratic Reps. Ed Case (Hawaii), Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Mike Thompson (Calif.) were expected to join them.

Democratic leaders in the House have not allowed their members to sit down with Republicans since the debate started heating up in January, and no spokespeople for those Democratic lawmakers who are expected to attend the meeting suggested a willingness to compromise.

A fifth Democrat, William Jefferson (La.), was expected to attend the meeting, but his office told The Hill that Jefferson was not expected to attend, after initially signaling that he would be there.

In response to a question about the meeting, Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said, "House Democrats stand united against privatizing Social Security." Pelosi's office did not know which Democratic lawmakers were involved in the proposed meeting.

One of them, Peterson, almost lost his ranking membership on the Agriculture Committee for siding with Republican leadership on the contentious Medicare prescription-drug debate.

Conaway did not lay out an agenda for the meeting, saying only that he wanted to gather Republicans and Democrats around the same negotiating table with AARP to discuss Social Security reform "using our inside voices" after a grueling partisan debate that has played out in speeches and the press since President Bush began selling the outlines of his reform plan this past January.

Conaway emphasized that he did not have any long-term objectives for the meeting tomorrow and was not trying to establish a working group to carry the House debate forward.

"I hope it's a step in the right direction," Conaway said. "I don't have any grandiose expectations."

The meeting is an extension of a letter that Conaway sent AARP two weeks ago asking the group to help House Republicans craft a solution to Social Security's long-term solvency shortfall.

Ken Spain, Conaway's spokesman, said, "All five Democratic members have confirmed that they would attend the meeting."

AARP spokesman Steve Hahn said Novelli and David Certner, the director of legislative affairs, who was also expected to attend the meeting, would use tomorrow's gathering as another opportunity to make their case against Bush's plan to carve personal retirement accounts out of the existing system.
"AARP hopes that real options for solvency becomes part of this debate," Hahn said.

Conaway said he just wanted to sit down with AARP leaders behind closed doors after the group had organized such an extensive campaign against the president's broad proposal

"They have a very loud voice," Conaway said.

"We're encouraged by AARP's response to Congressman Conaway's letter," Spain said.

Spain would not disclose the agenda for the meeting, saying only that "we're looking forward to moving past the partisan rhetoric and to having a substantive discussion the issue of Social Security."

Conaway and Bush were business partners in the Texas oil and gas business years ago.