Is the administration willing to drop its insistence on private accounts as a condition for Social Security reform? Some people think so:
Social Security Up for Discussion Treasury Chief Says 'No Preconditions', by Lori Montgomery, Washington Post: With ... Democrats poised to take control..., the Bush administration is making a fresh push to persuade them to help rein in the rising costs of Social Security and government health-care programs by offering to open talks with "no preconditions."
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. ... said in an interview yesterday that he has had "a number of . . . very, very general, very preliminary conversations" with lawmakers from both parties about the issue since Election Day, Nov. 7.
So far, "it's too early in the aftermath of the election to know whether we're going to get traction," Paulson said, adding that he is "going to make a huge effort to persuade people to engage in a bipartisan discussion where we don't precondition our discussion."
"No preconditions," Paulson said, means both sides get a chance to put their ideas on the table. In regard to Social Security, administration officials said that means President Bush will continue to advocate ... private retirement accounts, a proposal Congress roundly rejected last year.
It also means that the White House is willing to listen to other ideas... "We're in a listening mode," said Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget... "The president wants to listen. He wants to hear what the leaders on Capitol Hill think is the best way to go. He's not wed to any particular approach."
Political analysts said the outreach campaign is a sign that Bush may be willing to compromise to make progress on Social Security... Bush may see Social Security as an issue on which he could score points before leaving office in 2009, analysts said.
Bush's former chief economic adviser, Lawrence B. Lindsey, added to that speculation on Monday, after writing in the Wall Street Journal that Bush "may be willing to raise taxes as part of a 'deal' on entitlement reform." Specifically, Lindsey wrote, the administration might agree to lift the cap that limits Social Security payroll taxes to the first $90,000 of income...
While Paulson and Portman are talking about consensus, some Democrats worry that Bush is still determined to pursue the idea of private accounts. ... That fear was fanned last week when Bush appointed Andrew G. Biggs, a proponent of Social Security privatization, to the agency that runs the program.
"This nomination of Biggs is very troublesome," said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), who is in line to chair a House subcommittee on Social Security. "The president is sending signals that what he's really after is privatization. And that's just a non-starter." ...
Just to be clear about what "no preconditions" means. From a Wall Street Journal article on the same topic:
Will Bush Bargain to Save Social Security?, by Jackie Calmes, WSJ (free): For Mr. Bush, private accounts are ... central to his concept of an "ownership society" in which Americans rely less on government...
Publicly, the White House isn't budging. "Private accounts are part of our proposal and we're interested in having others put things on the table, not taking things off," says administration spokesman Dana Perino.
For those who nonetheless see a Bush concession ahead, perhaps the biggest reason is this: If Mr. Bush doesn't drop private accounts, it is virtually certain that nothing will happen on Social Security, the issue he has called the top domestic priority of his second term. ...
This week, ... Mr. Paulson dodged a question about the Democrats' demand that the administration drop the private-accounts idea. "Only by taking a bipartisan approach, not conditioning the discussion" might an agreement be reached, he said.
Some listeners wondered whether Mr. Paulson was signaling administration willingness to quit prescribing the accounts. Administration officials privately said that wasn't the case. ...
Saying that private accounts have to be part of any deal sounds suspiciously like a precondition. There is this is the same article though:
Chief of Staff Bolten got a similar query about private accounts... According to one attendee, Mr. Bolten "came as close as he could in a quasi-public setting to saying that carve-out accounts could be dropped if that were the price of reform." A second audience member supported that interpretation.
But there's this too:
Messrs. Rangel and Baucus each tried to get Mr. Bush to drop private accounts in the past. Mr. Rangel tried at a White House encounter in April 2005. He said afterwards that Mr. Bush sternly replied, "I'm the president, and private accounts will stay on the table until I leave."
As far as I can tell, there's nothing new here. The administration is hoping that by giving in on other issues, it can get private accounts into place, but private accounts will not be dropped as part of any compromise. So long as that's the case, this is nothing but a waste of time, time that could be spent on much bigger problems such as reforming health care.
Update: Andrew Samwick at Vox Baby follows up on the statement "As far as I can tell, there's nothing new here" and explains what is different this time.
Update: PGL at Angry Bear responds to Andrew, and has additional comments as well.
Update: Brad DeLong continues the discussion.