by Nina Easton

A political odd couple tackles Social Security

From opposite sides of the aisle, two Congressmen are quietly trying to take on the most volatile policy issue in Washington. Fortune's Nina Easton looks inside an unlikely partnership.

By Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

WASHINGTON (Fortune) -- Picture this: A rotund, theatrical politician from Harlem and a wiry, introverted policy-wonk from Shreveport sitting elbow to elbow on the House floor, shuffling between each other's offices, passing paper between staffs. Two men from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they are joined in secrecy on a project that just about everyone else in Washington considers doomed to failure. Charlie Rangel and Jim McCrery are on a mission to rescue Social Security from bankruptcy.

Conventional Washington wisdom long ago wrote the death notice on Social Security reform. What Republican would want to touch a project that blew up in George Bush's face just two years ago? What Democrat would risk frightening senior citizens when party leaders are hoping they'll be passing out tickets for Inaugural Day, 2009?


But McCrery, a conservative, and Rangel, a liberal, are willing to take the heat because they actually believe in the old-fashioned notion that if lawmakers offer serious solutions to serious problems, Congress' miserably low standing in public opinion doesn't have to be permanent. "I think it's important for the institution to reform Social Security," McCrery tells Fortune. "The public's opinion of the federal government right now is as low as it's ever been in my lifetime. And that's dangerous, because we have big problems to solve. And if we don't have political capital with the public, we can't solve those problems. We need public support to solve Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, healthcare." "Social Security is the easiest one, so let's start there," he adds. "Let's build some capital and show we can work together, and get big things done."

The Rangel-McCrery conspiracy matters only because these two men are, respectively, the Democratic chairman and the ranking GOP member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, ground zero for matters ranging from tax and trade policy to entitlement reform. Quietly, and over the course of the past three months, the two men have been meeting alone and with staff to hammer out a compromise plan. "We're not there yet," says Rangel, even as he makes clear - as a self-described "old poker player from Harlem" - that he's betting on a breakthrough.

"It's a long shot," concedes McCrery. "But somebody's got to work this out. No matter how politically intractable it is, this problem is not going to go away. It's going to be there, so there's got to be a solution."

That's not the kind of talk heard much these days on Capitol Hill, where a bunker mentality still pervades, despite Democratic pledges after taking control in January to reverse the bitter tides of partisan warfare. The name-calling extends beyond hot issues like the Iraq war: This week Republicans dismissed as "laughable" a report by Democratic leaders asserting they are running the House more fairly than the Republicans did.

Given that atmosphere, it's pretty stunning that Rangel and McCrery would even be in discussions on an issue as divisive as Social Security reform. And like the 1980s image of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill swapping jokes and sipping cocktails, it's hard to find two more contrasting personalities. Rangel - the fatherless high school dropout and Korean War hero "with a gift for living by my wits" - is an old-school pol with a hearty laugh and a deck full of jokes. McCrery, whose district is a white-collar north Louisiana, is quiet and intense, a lawmaker known for his grasp of policy nuance but still eloquent in describing the big picture.

But both of these lawyer-lawmakers have little patience for the politics of revenge. Rangel is a staunch liberal who nevertheless writes in his new book: "There are still a lot of young Democratic members who want to get even" with Republicans for their heavy-handed leadership of Congress. "But getting 'even' means they will not be getting anything done." At age 76, Charlie Rangel - who has waited 36 years to be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee - wants to get something done, something big.

And in McCrery, Rangel has found someone he can do business with. The pair was at the center of a delicate dance over trade, which ended with a historic agreement last month to bring centrist Democrats to the free trade table when Republicans acceded to long-held demands on labor and environmental standards. "Both men were able to work very hard on this trade issue. That agreement bodes well for other issues, including Social Security," said California GOP Rep. David Dreier, ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee.

Says McCrery: "This whole exercise that Chairman Rangel and I have gone through to build a level of trust is critical for us to move forward on things like Social Security. We now have a level of trust with each other that should allow us to frankly explore all the options for solving this problem."

Neither man is willing to disclose details on those options. All they have to do is look across the Capitol at the left-right torpedoes being launched at the bipartisan immigration bill to understand what dangerous waters they are treading in. (On Thursday, a motion to cut off debate on the bill fell 15 votes short, putting the future of the bipartisan motion in serious doubt.) "It's been very quiet and it's going to stay that way," McCrery says of the proposals they are discussing.

One thing that is clear: the Bush White House will not play a big role, if any, in this effort. "McCrery and I know that we don't need the President to revive Social Security reform," Rangel says, pointedly. "The President is locked into private accounts and that ain't gonna fly," says Rangel. "[Reform] is going cost a trillion dollars; it's a political problem we have. You can have all the bipartisan cooperation you want, but if you don't find someone who's going to pay for it, you're not going to do it."

That sounds like a tax increase - the solution that touches off conservative outrage the same way that Bush's plan for private accounts sent liberals on the warpath. "You could reorganize the tax system, raise revenue by reforming the system," Rangel says, but quickly adds, "we're not there yet."

There are plenty of skeptics who doubt the pair can thread the needle between conservative objections to tax hikes, liberal objections to private accounts, and citizen objections to reducing the scope and timing of benefits. But none of that has dissuaded either man. "To me it's a no-brainer, it's got to be done," says McCrery. "We can't stick our heads in the sand and then hope ten years from now it'll go away. It will only be worse. So let's get after it."  Top of page