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Is Social Security Reform Dead?

Aired March 3, 2005 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville; on the right, Joe Watkins.

In the CROSSFIRE: Can 60 stops in 60 days save President Bush's plans to reform Social Security? The president sure hopes so.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Every week, I'm going to be out talking about the problem, assuring seniors that nothing will change, and reminding young Americans that they need to write the Congress.

ANNOUNCER: Democrats in Congress say the president's plan for Social Security won't fly.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: Everyone here should understand all 45 Senate Democrats are united. We're not going to let this happen.

ANNOUNCER: Even some Republicans in Congress say their supporters back home aren't convinced.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My constituents, I think, like many, are interested in solving the problem, but they want to know a little bit more about some of the details.

ANNOUNCER: Will President Bush be able to overcome the doubters or is Social Security reform dead for at least another year?



ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, James Carville and Joe Watkins.



Today, we're going to zero in on the Bush administration's big road trip and where he -- and will he and others push even harder for Social Security changes? The announcement of the trip follows another decline in public support of Bush's plan.

Joining me on the right today is Republican strategist and radio talk show host Joe Watkins.

Hello, Joe.


CARVILLE: Now the best little political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

In the vast sea of hypocrisy, which is geographically known as Washington, D.C., yesterday produced a giant tsunami in the person of Alan Greenspan. In a city where hypocrites of all stripes abound, this is the king of them all. Alan Greenspan, along with George W. Bush, who are the architects of the current budget deficit, actually had the gall and the nerve to sound a warning against the current, humongous, far-reaching and unsustainable deficit.

This, my dear friends, being one and the same Alan Greenspan who, four years ago, was before Congress urging that we pass idiotic tax cuts because was worried about the size of the budget surplus.

If Dante was right and the hottest place in hell is reserved for the hypocrites, the temperature on Greenspan is going to go a lot higher than 911 degrees Fahrenheit.


WATKINS: Well, you know, you have to consider the fact, James, that Alan Greenspan isn't like you and me. You and me, we're partisan guys. You're a Democrat. I'm a Republican. We're partisan guys.

Alan Greenspan is a dispassionate observer.


WATKINS: And that's the good thing about it.


WATKINS: I mean, look at what he's saying about Social Security.

CARVILLE: He's a Republican.

WATKINS: He's supporting the president.


WATKINS: Not because he's a Republican, but because it's the right thing to do.


CARVILLE: What he is, is, four years ago, on January the 25th, he said -- 2001 -- he was worried about the size of the surplus. What he is, is, he's wrong. He's got this budget deficit around his neck. He's going to be held responsible and accountable for it. And he's starting to panic. (BELL RINGING)


WATKINS: The president is doing the right thing.

CARVILLE: Oh, yes, right.

WATKINS: The president is going to cut this thing in half in four years.


CARVILLE: He did the right thing by straddling debt with everybody.

WATKINS: Four years.

CARVILLE: He's doing the right thing by no income growth. Health care costs are up.


WATKINS: The economy is roaring back.


WATKINS: And we're going to cut the deficit in four years.


CARVILLE: You got it, America.


CARVILLE: ... job. You're roaring out there.


CARVILLE: Here's the roar.


WATKINS: One of the most respected voices in the Democratic Party has a warning for party leaders about African-American voters.

Donna Brazile says an aggressive campaign by Republicans to target black churches should be a -- quote -- "cause for alarm for Democrats." I agree. Democrats should be concerned. Republicans have a lot more to offer the African-American church community. Republicans support social issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, which are important to the black community.

In the last election, President Bush saw an increase in his support among African-American voters in key battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. It is time for Democrats to understand that, in the words of Donna Brazile, they can't take African-American voters for granted. They cannot.

CARVILLE: Well, I don't -- I don't think you should take any vote for granted.

But I want to see these Republicans out in these African-American churches talking about the need to privatize Social Security, that you don't need a guaranteed benefit out there.

WATKINS: That's a great idea. That's a great idea.


WATKINS: ... give African-Americans the chance to invest in something that is their own.

CARVILLE: That's right. We're going to divert money away from the Social -- away from the trust fund.


WATKINS: Creating wealth in the community.

CARVILLE: That's right. And I urge those Republicans to go right and take that message that they are going to divert money from the trust fund, that they're going away to due away with a guaranteed Social Security benefit. I'll tell you, they're going to get some payoff in the African-American community. It might go down to 2 percent.


CARVILLE: This administration has had a terrible time with intelligence. I mean intelligence of all kinds. Should I be so crass as to mention the weapons of mass destruction?

And now Porter Goss, former Republican politician and mid-level CIA bureaucrat and now CIA director, says that he is overwhelmed by his new job and it's -- quote -- and I quote him -- "too much for this mortal." Goss further said that President Bush's director of national intelligence left him unclear on his further role.

Let me quote this former Republican political hack directly. Speaking of the Bush intelligence bill -- quote -- "It has got a huge amount of ambiguity in it" -- unquote. And Goss further says -- and I quote -- he didn't know by law what his relationship with John Negroponte, the new intelligence czar, would be. To be fair, he did say he thought it was a positive sign that the two went to Yale together. Wowee, chicka-di-dee.



WATKINS: Well, we're going to see. You know, this new intelligence bill is a good thing. And, obviously, there's a lot that needs to be worked out still, but, at the end of the day, it is going to make Americans safer from terror. And that's what it is all about.


WATKINS: To make us safe from terror.

CARVILLE: If the CIA director says there is a lot of ambiguity in it, and if he says the job is too much for him, that don't make me feel too good.


CARVILLE: I would like to see a CIA director to say, you know what? I have got a job. I can do it. I know it. But maybe that's why I am a Democrat, you know? I'm a literalist. I like the CIA director to know what the hell is going on.



WATKINS: John Kerry apparently really likes Hillary Clinton as a senator. He spent part of last night raising money for her 2006 New York Senate campaign.

According to CNN's "Morning Grind" column, he has another fund- raising event scheduled for Mrs. Clinton in Boston later this spring. Why all this interest in the former first lady's Senate career? Maybe he's hoping, if everything goes well for her on Capitol Hill, she'll put aside any plans she might have to run for president in 2008. A Clinton presidential bid would, of course, put a serious dent in his hopes of becoming the Democratic Party's nominee in the next race for the Oval Office. And I think, if that happens, he's just dead in the water.

CARVILLE: You know, it could be that she raised a lot of money for him. And maybe she said, like, John, I raised some money for you. I have got a Senate campaign coming up. And why don't you help me raise some money, too?


CARVILLE: But it would be very plausible. And I don't that's never happened before in Washington, where one politician is like, I don't want it.


CARVILLE: Shock you guys in Philly when you come down here, but, actually, these politicians do fund-raisers for each other. It's hardly...


WATKINS: Well, it's going to be a hardly -- it's going to be a hard-fought contest. I think if Hillary or -- Clinton are the Democratic nominees in 2008, Republicans get to take another four years in the White House.

CARVILLE: Well, you know what?

WATKINS: That's my take on it.

CARVILLE: That's your take on it.

WATKINS: That's my take on it.

CARVILLE: And your take on it is that Social Security privatization is coming and that we are going to divert money from the trust fund.


WATKINS: ... private investment accounts, private investment accounts.


WATKINS: That's a little bit different.

CARVILLE: All right, Joe, private investment accounts.


CARVILLE: Who does President Bush think he's kidding? He's getting ready to head out on a 60-day campaign to sell his Social Security plan. Is America really going to buy it?

And coming up, the latest on the Chris Rock, Sean Penn and Jude Law Oscar controversy.

ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to CROSSFIRE at the George Washington University, call 202-994-8CNN or visit our Web site. Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.



WATKINS: Sixty days, 60 stops, 29 states, call it the Bush administration's road trip in his latest push to gain momentum for Social Security reform. That's despite the climbing support among some Democrats and many Americans for Bush's proposal, which includes private retirement accounts.

Joining me to debate the issue, Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah and former Republican Congressman Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Welcome to the CROSSFIRE, men.


CARVILLE: Well, here we are. We are...


CARVILLE: Joe Watkins of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania. And I've spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania myself.


CARVILLE: So, tell me, Congressman, across the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, do you detect a surge of support in getting behind the president in this effort to have -- divert these funds from the trust fund into these accounts? Tell me what do see and what you're picking up.

PAT TOOMEY, PRESIDENT, CLUB FOR GROWTH: I think there is a lot of support. There was every time I ran for Congress since 1998.

And the idea of having individual workers...


TOOMEY: Own their own retirement is powerful.


TOOMEY: That's what this comes down to. Should the government own this or should the worker own it himself? It's a powerful idea.

CARVILLE: So, you think across Pennsylvania that Pennsylvanians everywhere are clamoring to get behind the president?

TOOMEY: Gaining steam.


TOOMEY: The president only gave his State of the Union 60 days ago. There's time for this. And it's growing.

CARVILLE: But it's gaining steam every day, right?

TOOMEY: It is.

CARVILLE: Let me -- one more question. Our colleague Bob Novak, who does have -- a pretty thorough guy -- who reports this morning -- and I'm reading directly from Bob -- "George W. Bush, who is not prone to confessing mistakes, has confided to close associates that he committed a whopper on Social Security. He admitted error in pushing for new personal accounts, while not stressing the repair of the safety net for seniors."

Now, how -- and I am reading this from a well-known conservative columnist, a supporter of the president, that the president is admitting error. This thing is going down. Public support is sinking like a brick. How are you all guys going to get out of this?

TOOMEY: Well, I kind of have a problem with the premise of the question, James.

I don't think it is dropping like a brick at all.


TOOMEY: I think this is going to take a few more months to develop. And as seniors understand, nobody is talking about changing the rules for seniors, and young workers understand they have got a chance to own their own retirement benefit, I think it's going to take off. I really do.

WATKINS: Congressman, this is such a political folks. Think about it. I mean, Republicans -- a lot of Democrats are saying, you know, we're just going to oppose the president no matter what he says.

Now, Alan Greenspan is not a political guy. He's a very dispassionate guy when it comes to things financial, things fiscal.


WATKINS: And Alan Greenspan, despite James' antics over there, Alan Greenspan says that changes need to be made to Social Security.

Now, now, why are Democrats so against any kind of Social Security restructuring?

REP. CHAKA FATTAH (D), PENNSYLVANIA: This is a big surprise. The Republicans are in charge. They're got the White House, the Senate, the House. If they want to raid Social Security, if they want to rip away this safety net, they could do it right now today.

The problem is not that just Democrats are opposed to this. The problem is, Republicans with good sense are...

WATKINS: Well, it's not about...


FATTAH: ... against trying to solve the -- the -- the problem with Social Security running out of dollars in some out year by taking away a couple trillion today.

WATKINS: You know, the -- the -- the...

FATTAH: So that the problem here is that your own party, they have the majority in the U.S. Senate.


FATTAH: Frist says, well, we might not do Social Security this year. They have the majority in the House.


FATTAH: The House leadership says, we're going to put some Social Security off to some future year, right? Bush says, no, I want to ride around the country for 60 days. Maybe he'll find weapons of mass destruction, too. I don't know.



WATKINS: The president, the president -- you have got to give the president credit. What he has done is, he has raised the issue to a new level. Bill Clinton, back in 1998, said that the situation was critical for Social Security, that it needed to be addressed. This president is addressing it.


WATKINS: Now, he could do nothing. He could choose to do nothing, if he wanted to. And...


FATTAH: It has to do with your expectation.

If your expectation is that the best you can get out of a president is for him to recite the problem, then you're right. Give him a big hand.


FATTAH: He's recited the problem.

WATKINS: He's doing more than recite the problem.


FATTAH: He's not offering a plan.


TOOMEY: First of all, and, Chaka, you're skipping the fact that we can't do this all by Republicans, because there is a such thing called the filibuster. You need 60 votes. So there needs to be some Democrats who acknowledge...


FATTAH: You have got to put a plan up for a vote in order for it to be filibustered.

TOOMEY: And we're working on that. And the president has laid out...


FATTAH: You haven't even done that yet.


CARVILLE: In order to vote on something, you have got to propose something.


FATTAH: Right.

CARVILLE: OK? So, when is the president -- give us a time. When is the president going to put out -- it's his plan. He's in charge.


CARVILLE: When are we going to see a detailed plan of this thing, so people can see what's in there? When is the president...


CARVILLE: Can't vote. There's nothing to vote on.

TOOMEY: I guess I have to explain this doesn't happen overnight.



TOOMEY: What happens is, you build support for the idea.

CARVILLE: But when are we going to see the plan?


TOOMEY: The president has articulated the features. He's specified the dollar amount, when it would kick in. There's a lot of ideas on the table.


CARVILLE: Is there anything to vote on right now?

TOOMEY: There's -- there's...

CARVILLE: When is the president going to put...


TOOMEY: You don't put something on the table...


TOOMEY: ... to vote until it's had a chance...


CARVILLE: Well, you said it's gaining support. I don't understand, Congressman. You said..

(CROSSTALK) TOOMEY: And within -- within a few months, it will be there.

CARVILLE: So, why doesn't he put a proposal out?

WATKINS: Well, well, well, Congressman Fattah, let me ask you this question. I mean, the president has put this out on the table. He's talked about private savings accounts. He's talked about all the possible changes that could be made.

The Democrats have been very content to just poke holes and to actually poke fun and to say, you know what? We're going to stand in the way of this. We're going to stand in the way of any kind of progress. There's not an issue. There's not a problem. It's not going to run out of money, even though everybody knows it is going to run out of money.

What plan is the Democratic plan? What plan do the Democrats have to fix and to save Social Security for our young people, especially who won't have it if something is not done to save it now?

FATTAH: First of all, when this president came into office, the Congressional Budget Office said that we could eliminate the entire debt of this nation by the end of his term in office.

We heard in that campaign proposals to take some of the surplus that's now been wasted away and put it in a position so that we could help deal with future problems with Social Security. There was this whole debate about a lockbox back and forth. You remember that, right?

Bush came in. He's bankrupted the country. We have the highest deficits in history. His solution to...


WATKINS: ... 9/11.

FATTAH: No. Excuse me.

His solution is a fund that was going to run out of money in 25 years, less -- empty out $2 trillion a day, so that we can move the date sooner. What Greenspan said yesterday is, this proposal will do nothing to solve the problem with the fiscal solvency of this program.


FATTAH: That's what Greenspan said.

TOOMEY: I didn't hear any answer to your question. There is no solution on the table. You guys want to deny that there is a problem, because you can't accept...

FATTAH: We're in the minority. Don't pass off to us the responsibility.

(CROSSTALK) TOOMEY: You can't accept the idea of workers accumulating savings of their own. You know that that's devastating for the Democratic Party.


WATKINS: Well said.


FATTAH: Republicans used to talk about personal accountability. They're in charge. Let them put a proposal forward.

TOOMEY: We don't have 60 votes in the Senate.

FATTAH: And let them step up and put the votes they have for that proposal, because they don't have their own.


TOOMEY: We don't have 60.

CARVILLE: So, with this support gaining like this, it's just a matter of hours. We'll see now...



CARVILLE: Sixteen-forty-nine Eastern.

WATKINS: When we come back, I'll try to find out why Democrats are so opposed to giving young workers what they want.

And right after the break, reaction to the incredible aviation achievement.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Coming up at the top of the hour, another deadly milestone in Iraq. The number of American troops killed passes 1,500. We'll go live to the Pentagon.

A dramatic discovery on the border with Mexico, a 200-yard tunnel. Our Zain Verjee is looking into a report and what security officials say this tunnel is being used for.

And flying into the record books. The adventurer Steve Fossett and his Global Flyer hit pay dirt in Kansas.

All those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE. CARVILLE: Let's continue the debate on President Bush's Social Security proposal and his administration's big road trip to push the plan, in spite of the fact many Americans apparently don't want to hear it.

Joining us are former Republican Congressman Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, currently president of the Club For Growth, and, in addition to our Pennsylvania host, Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah. If I can say Pennsylvania one more time, I don't know what I'm going to be able to do here, guys.


WATKINS: Well, this is a great day for Pennsylvania.

CARVILLE: I'm telling you.

WATKINS: No doubt about it.


WATKINS: But, in any case, Congressman, let's continue the dialogue about Social Security. Obviously, this is such a hot political football.

Now, to show how Republicans think about Social Security, Senator Rick Santorum this week on "Meet the Press" said that everything is on the table. Republicans want to really work this out, work this thing out and make Social Security -- restructure it, so that it's available and alive for our future -- future retirees.

Now, what is it that Democrats have against this whole issue? And then, secondly, why are Democrats so afraid of letting younger workers invest their own money? I mean, what is the fear in that? Why can't a younger person have the right, if he or she wants, to invest their own money? Can't they do a better job of investing their own money than perhaps the government?

FATTAH: Look, I remember when President Clinton offered to set up USA savings accounts and promote the idea of private retirement.

Retirement should be Social Security...

WATKINS: Was it a good idea then, when Clinton said it?

FATTAH: ... a private pension fund and your own private savings.

The difference and what the debate is about -- because I want you to be able to follow this...


FATTAH: ... is not to take money that should be in the Social Security trust fund and use that for private accounts. We're against that. If you want to have some other type of private accounts tax free, we're for that. We heard Senator Santorum says, look, let's raise the rate so that people of higher incomes pay more in. He says, that's on the table. Then we heard DeLay and Hastert come out and say, that's not on the table. So, when you all finish arguing with yourselves about what's on the table, we'll be around.


CARVILLE: That's right.

And I want to follow this up, because, at $90,000, you stop paying Social Security taxes. And the president said, you know what? He's willing to look at what they call busting the cap I guess in the thing, so higher-income people like myself could pony up a little bit more.

Is the Club For Growth going to get behind this president at a time of war on his proposal to get higher-income people to pony up and start paying for some of this?

TOOMEY: If you want to pony up and pay a little bit more and send a check to the Treasury, James, no problem with that.



TOOMEY: But I don't think we should raise taxes as part of this reform.

CARVILLE: But are you going to get behind this president at a time of war?

TOOMEY: This president hasn't said he wants to raise taxes to do this.

CARVILLE: And put it on the table?


TOOMEY: The president said he's going to listen to all ideas.

CARVILLE: Should it be on the table?

TOOMEY: He has not proposed...

CARVILLE: No, he specifically said it would be on the table.

TOOMEY: We think that -- we think that there should not be a tax increase.


TOOMEY: Because it will be bad for the economy.


TOOMEY: And it doesn't help workers who already have a bad deal.

CARVILLE: But why would the president put it on the table?

TOOMEY: And to make them pay more in taxes.

CARVILLE: Why did...

TOOMEY: The president is going to listen to all the ideas. I hope he rejects that one, because it's a really bad one.


CARVILLE: But you would get behind him if he was for it?


TOOMEY: I'd be behind it if it's a good plan.

CARVILLE: All right.

TOOMEY: And a good plan is giving workers the freedom to accumulate savings and not raising their taxes.


FATTAH: Selective amnesia.

CARVILLE: I want to...


FATTAH: But said that that was on the table, raising the rate.

And, so, I don't know. I will tell you, they keep arguing among themselves about what's on the table.


CARVILLE: ... prerogative here. I have got my friend from -- a friend of mine in Philadelphia. Coach John Chaney at Temple University, a really great American, is in a great deal of personal stress right now.

And I want to give you a chance, Chaka, to just say something about that.

FATTAH: I spent a decade on the Board of Trustees at Temple and when Coach Cheney came in, built the national basketball program. He has helped so many kids doing his work at Cheyney University and now at Temple. He has had a great career.

We should not judge him on one incident. We need to look at his batting average. Perfection is not available. When Joe was my associate pastor at my church... WATKINS: I was perfect, wasn't I?


FATTAH: No, they told us there's no -- that perfection is not available, except in terms of the lord. In terms of us human beings, none of us are perfect.


FATTAH: And I wish John Chaney well.


CARVILLE: Coach Cheney, we love you. We know you're having a difficult time. And I just wanted to take the host's prerogative to just send you our best here and one of your congressman and one of his constituents. We thank you very much.

WATKINS: All right.


CARVILLE: Want to know the real reason why Sean Penn came to Jude Law's defense at the Oscars? I know and I'll tell you when we come back.

And thank you so much, Congressman Toomey and Congressman Fattah. Thank you very much. Great.



CARVILLE: Come back and see us.



WATKINS: You may recall on Oscar night host Chris Rock poked fun at actor Jude Law, questioning his talent and wondering why he was just about in every movie that Rock had seen lately.

Law's fellow actor Sean Penn came to his defense on the Oscar telecast saying -- quote -- "Jude is one of our finest actors." Penn should know from first-hand experience. He's working with Law right now on "All The King's Men." CROSSFIRE's own James Carville is an executive producer of that movie.

What has it been like working with these actors, James?

CARVILLE: I'll tell you, I couldn't believe -- I thought somebody paid Chris Rock to say that. But he said -- and he did a great job. And people are just blown away by what kind of job that Jude Law is doing in this movie. WATKINS: Yes.

CARVILLE: And I just can't -- I think that, in Chris Rock's defense, he was probably trying to say something funny. And Sean Penn, anybody that knows him, he is a really stand-up guy.

WATKINS: He stood up.

CARVILLE: And I think -- he stood up, but justifiably so.

Just everybody is almost blown away when you look at the stuff that's coming out. And I think people are going to be -- when this movie comes out, and Jude Law, Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini...


WATKINS: Yes. Yes. When is it coming out? When is the movie coming out?

CARVILLE: It is going to be out in December of this year, 2005. We got Anthony Hopkins.


CARVILLE: And we have Mark Ruffalo. We got a hell of a cast. It was a great book.


CARVILLE: From the left, I'm James Carville. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

WATKINS: And from the right, I'm Joe Watkins. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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