Advocates of overhauling Social Security say a pending Senate fight over the Supreme Court might complicate their efforts but has not sidelined the lobbying and grassroots campaign to enact personal accounts in the system.
Derrick Max, who heads the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, said his coalition remains engaged in lobbying and that there is still time for Congress to act this year.
"We've always said this is a 10- or 12-month process, and we're still four months inside that window," he said.
Max said the Supreme Court fight "can break two ways." He said liberal ideological groups that are intent on defeating President Bush on a major issue might draw opposition away from the Social Security debate.
"The downside is [a Supreme Court vacancy] will take a lot of work and member attention," Max said.
He noted Senate Finance Chairman Grassley, who is working to craft a proposal that committee Republicans can support, is also a member of the Judiciary Committee, which will review Bush's court nominee.
Max described proposals offered by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and House Ways and Means Subcommittee Chairman Jim McCrery, R-La., as the kind of "first step" that has helped keep the Social Security debate moving.
At least one GOP-allied group has backed away from the Social Security fight. Progress for America spent $7 million to promote the Bush-favored private accounts carved out of payroll taxes before it shifted its focus to the Supreme Court fight.
Sources in and outside the group said PFA has not abandoned the Social Security debate and said it is prepared to run broadcast ads nearly immediately when a bill is ready.
Other groups remain fully engaged. Club for Growth President Pat Toomey said he detects "a great deal of energy" on Social Security, and is ready to spend money to promote changes.
"I think the Club will be running some very powerful ads before the month of July is over," he said.
FreedomWorks campaign director Rob Jordan said Social Security remains "first and foremost" on the agenda of his grassroots activist group.
Jordan said his members are interested in a Supreme Court vacancy, but have not diverted their attention from Social Security. He said the group plans to lobby lawmakers at home during the August recess and has scheduled a "fly-in" for 200 activists for September.
Personal account advocates said House action might ultimately help Grassley and Senate leaders force movement in the Senate later this year.
Free Enterprise Fund vice president Lawrence Hunter said the House has no direct role in filling Supreme Court vacancies, and said he thinks House GOP leaders can find the votes to pass McCrery's proposal, as part of whatever retirement package Ways and Means Chairman Thomas might advance.
"The action is going to start in the House. The House I don't think will be distracted by what's happening in the Senate," Hunter said.
McCrery said Tuesday said his accounts proposal might be introduced this week, but said no decision has been made about when the committee would mark up a retirement package.
Among opponents to Bush's Social Security plans, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees legislative director Chuck Loveless said he takes no comfort in the distraction of a Supreme Court fight.
"It's not [a distraction] from our point of view. We're focused like a laser beam on a possible markup in the Ways and Means Committee," Loveless said.
AFSCME has worked closely with the anti-privatization group Americans United to Protect Social Security. The opposition has relied heavily on grassroots and news stories, but Loveless said AFSCME would consider paid media if a bill got to the House floor.
AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuel, who has also lobbied against personal accounts, said a protracted Senate debate over a Supreme Court nominee "certainly complicates matters."
But he said the continuing deadlock in the Senate Finance Committee might give pause to House Republicans, who he said might resist casting a difficult vote on Social Security if a bill has little chance of reaching the president's desk.