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Bush Visit Puts Local Lawmakers on the Spot

By Associated Press

Washington, DC – When President Bush makes his pitch for personal Social Security accounts at a town-hall meeting Tuesday in suburban Rochester, he may finally win over some key undecided voters: the three Republican congressmen representing the area.

Reps. Thomas Reynolds, James Walsh, and John "Randy" Kuhl are all expected to attend the event in Greece, and while each has expressed support for Bush's willingness to tackle the issue, they've stopped short of endorsing the president's plan.

Polling on the issue shows voters are not enthusiastic about the Bush plan and skepticism runs even higher in Democratic states like New York despite the fact that much of western New York is comfortably Republican.

"These are pretty solid Republican districts, so they probably don't have that much to fear politically, but if it's not going to fly, why stick their necks out at all?" said Jeff Koch, a political science professor at nearby SUNY Geneseo.

Bush has proposed allowing workers under 55 to invest nearly two-thirds of their Social Security taxes in private accounts. Democrats charge that would starve the program and lead to lower benefits.

Reynolds, a powerful GOP lawmaker whose direction of the National Republican Congressional Committee helped increase the Republican House majority in the last election, praised the president Friday for bringing the issue to the country's attention. Still, he did not necessarily embrace Bush's proposed solution.

"The issue before us is what can or should be done for the future, and I believe that it's critically important to keep an open mind and listen to a wide variety of ideas, suggestions, and opinions," said Reynolds.

One of the Democrats leading the charge against Bush's plan is Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who welcomed the president's visit, but not his message.

"It's great that the president is going to Rochester, and if he listens when he gets there, he'll realize most in Rochester are against privatization, but want us to work together to make sure Social Security is solvent for this generation and many generations to come," said Schumer.

For months, a group known as "In This Together," which opposes Bush's approach, have tried to draw out the nine Republican New York members of Congress to take a position on Social Security.

Now, it may be the president himself who forces their hands.

"It will be interesting to see whether congressman Reynolds in particular continues to take a wait and see approach while standing next to the president," said Alex Navarro, a spokesman for the group.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat who also represents part of Monroe County, said she will be too busy with legislation in the House to attend Bush's event.

The president's plan "is a very unpopular thing in the state," said Slaughter. "With everything that comes into my office every day, calls or letters, I've never had a single person saying, `Gee, I wish they would privatize Social Security."'

But other western New York lawmakers insist there is no consensus among their constituents when it comes to Social Security.

Kuhl, a freshman, has held some 60 town hall meetings speaking to constituents, and the issue has come up at all but three, said his spokesman Bob Van Wicklin.

"He hasn't come out one way or another on the president's plan," said Van Wicklin. "He's talked to the president about it... He wants to be sure he's making the right choice."