WASHINGTON -- Democrats hope to win the budget debate by accusing the White House of stealing from Social Security to pay for tax cuts and other priorities. President Bush is struggling to avoid that public relations trap.
Noting a shift in the president's rhetoric upon his return from an August break, GOP strategists said the White House appears to be bracing for a fight with Democratic leaders and, perhaps, preparing the public for the possibility that Social Security surpluses will be tapped.
Bush introduced the new message Tuesday, between meetings with Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. The South Dakota lawmaker emerged from the meeting with kind words for Bush, raising hopes in the White House that Democrats won't go to war over the issue.
Bush wants to be ready if they do. He said: ''There's been a lot of noise about the budget. I hope the appropriations process discards the old-style politics of trying to scare seniors. Our seniors have got to know that every Social Security promise will be fulfilled, that Social Security checks will arrive on time.''
No one can seriously suggest that Bush would stop the flow of benefits even if the government spent the Social Security surplus. However, White House officials say Bush is afraid that Democrats will resort to the tactic this fall so he felt it necessary to guarantee that Social Security checks will be in the mailbox.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said the president has reason to worry, and a new survey shows that Bush is vulnerable on the issue.
''The president realizes the volatility of this issue and everyone on our side recognizes that Democrats have used Social Security against us in the past,'' the pollster said. ''It is a critical issue, one in which you have to educate voters for a long time.''
Bush promised during the presidential campaign to leave Social Security surpluses untouched unless there was a war or a recession.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says Bush's tax-and-budget plans will spend $9 billion of the projected $162 billion Social Security surplus in the fiscal year that ends this month. Bush's budget office predicts a quick economic recovery and uses rosier accounting to conclude that he will barely avoid dipping into the Social Security money.
Top GOP strategists and even some White House officials say privately that Bush's hands-off-the-surplus pledge will be difficult, if not impossible, to keep unless the economy suddenly gains steam.
That may be why Bush ducked an opportunity Tuesday to renew the pledge.
Asked whether he would definitively promise to veto spending legislation that dipped into the Social Security surpluses, Bush said, ''I say definitively every Social Security recipient is going to get their check.''
Asked again, Bush said, ''I've answered your question.''
White House officials said the president was not signaling a softening on the pledge. They said he doesn't answer hypothetical questions and didn't want to issue a veto threat while meeting with Daschle.
They did, however, concede that Bush's response underscored how sensitive the issue has become. Furthermore, two Republican strategists with ties to the White House, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush seemed to be preparing voters for the possibility that some Social Security surpluses would be spent while assuring them that the action would not damage the program's solvency.
A new CBS survey suggests that most voters believe the CBO's budget estimates, not Bush's, and they have no stomach for tinkering with the Social Security surplus. Seven in 10 people surveyed said it is not acceptable for the government to use even a portion of the Social Security surplus to pay for other programs.
Furthermore, Bush's job approval rating is down slightly since April, in part because his support among senior citizens has dropped. The poll suggests that voters trust Democrats more than Bush to make the right decisions on Social Security.
Emerging from his meeting with Bush, Daschle said the president assured him that he does not want to tap Social Security money and will not allow his tax cuts to be rolled back. ''We look forward to working with him in seeking his guidance on how to avoid using Social Security trust funds,'' Daschle said.
White House officials took the remark as a thinly veiled warning; Daschle will soon claim that Bush must cut popular domestic programs to protect Social Security surpluses.
The White House response: Nothing further needs to be cut if Congress sticks to Bush's budget outline, which restrains government spending while increasing money for education and the military.
''It seems like the Democrats are tortured over this,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, even as his colleagues acknowledged privately that there is plenty of pain to go around.
Ron Fournier has covered politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 1993.
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