Let me share with you one of the problems I've been having handling admissions policy for the Conscience Caucus.
Human nature being what it is, the Caucus is like any other club. As the Caucus gets more popular, the admissions policies have grown tighter, more restrictive.
So, for instance, back in the early days of the Caucus, freshman Rep. Dave Reichert (R) of Washington got in merely for telling the Tri-City Herald that "he was intrigued by the idea of personal accounts, but was reluctant to add to the federal deficit." Nowadays, a little aside like that would hardly get you past the first interview. And Reichert's status in the Caucus is actually currently under review since, as near as we can tell, he's been mum on Social Security phase-out ever since.
But this tighter criteria does leave part of the story untold. As we've been reviewing the coverage over the last few days, it is striking just how few Republican senators are willing to go on the record in support of the president's plan. I'm not saying they're opposing it or that they won't sign on soon enough. But the resistance to simply saying, "Yes, I support the president's plan" is pretty telling.
Here's one example.
Of the states on the Bamboozlepalooza tour, there were three Republican senators: Burns of Montana, Hagel of Nebraska and Martinez of Florida.
As far as I can tell not one of them was willing to say they support he president's plan.
When the president was in Montana, Burns said he would "continue to look at it" but still had more questions, particularly about how to pay for it. After Burns got done introducing Bush at the event and a Times reporter asked if he supported the plan, he said he was still "crunching numbers." To yet another reporter, Burns said he was "intrigued" by the president's plan, but not ready to sign on. "Social Security is still a very, very important part of the retirement of a lot of seniors in Montana," he went on to say. "So we'll listen and we'll look and we'll probe ... and see what is in it for the next generation."
Hagel told the Christian Science Monitor that while he supported private accounts in principle, he wasn't ready to sign on with the president's plan. The key graf ...
"There's no question this is a tough sell," said Senator Hagel, who is preparing to unveil his own plan for Social Security in the next few weeks. "Social Security has probably been the most successful, important program we've had in government. Everyone is touched; there should be questions." He expressed doubt over whether a bill could be passed this year. "Next year is OK," he said.
Then there's freshman Senator Mel Martinez of Florida. This is what the Palm Beach Post had to say about Martinez at the Bamboozlepalooza tour's stop in Tampa: "One hint of the difficulty Bush is facing came from U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who was applauded by Bush for his support of the president's proposal. But after the event, Martinez said he supports private accounts but needs more detail before he can make a final decision."
Of the three, I'd say Burns (improbably enough) is the only one who's even possibly Caucus material, having read all the different coverage of each of the three over the last week. But just how many Republican senators are there who are willing to say now that they support the president's plan? It's hard to say, not least because many have managed to slip through without saying anything at all. Without having done any sort of organized count, but having looked at comments from a number of them over the past few days, I would not be surprised at all if less than half the Republican caucus is willing now to declare their support for the president's plan.