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Inside Politics

Reform's hard road

By Massimo Calabresi

Social Security
John Shadegg
George W. Bush

It has been less than a month since George W. Bush began getting specific about his plans to reform Social Security, but bookmakers in Washington are lengthening the odds of its passage.

Republicans have returned from a weeklong recess telling stories of meetings on the issue with voters who ranged from suspicious to downright hostile. At a town-hall gathering at the Madison No. 1 Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona, G.O.P. lawmaker John Shadegg faced a crowd of 280 people, 30 percent of whom by his estimate were there to voice angry opposition to tinkering with Social Security.

"They rushed to the microphones," says Shadegg.

After 17 town halls across Iowa last week, Charles Grassley, head of the Senate Finance Committee, said of the President's plan, "There's still a lot of people that are not focused on it or don't think there's a problem or don't even want to talk about it."

A G.O.P. congressional aide estimated that in her office, "90 percent of our letters are against it."

Grassley gives Bush 90 days to generate support, and moderate G.O.P. Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut says, "I would be surprised to see a bill passed by the House, Senate, and signed by the President in the next two years."

Still, the White House is far from conceding defeat on its top legislative priority.

"This is the beginning of the process, not the end," says a senior White House official. Bush will continue to travel a couple of days each week to the districts of G.O.P. lawmakers and "persuadable" Democrats. But tactics are getting rougher.

Shadegg believes that liberal groups were behind the onslaught he faced in Phoenix, and the George Soros-funded Campaign for America's Future has launched newspaper ads accusing Louisiana Republican Jim McCrery of supporting Bush's plan because investment companies donated to his campaigns.

A top Republican adviser says members are telling him they will need better ammunition before facing constituents again during the Easter recess. If the momentum can't be turned around by then, an already difficult fight will start to look hopeless.

With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr., Matthew Cooper and Karen Tumulty.

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