Nearly everyone agrees it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for President Bush to overhaul Social Security without bipartisan support. Democratic leaders are careful to say...

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WASHINGTON — Nearly everyone agrees it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for President Bush to overhaul Social Security without bipartisan support.

Democratic leaders are careful to say they are willing to engage in discussions about the problems facing Social Security, with “no preconditions on either side,” as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the Democratic leader in the House, said last week.

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The president himself said Thursday that he understood that “I have a responsibility to reach out to members of both political parties, and I will meet that responsibility.”

But leading Democrats say Bush is beginning his Social Security drive with some unacceptable preconditions. Indeed, Democratic leaders dispute the Republicans’ central assertions: that the problems facing Social Security constitute a crisis, and that diverting payroll taxes to private-investment accounts is the way to solve it.

Social Security trustees have estimated that, without changes, the system will start running short of money to pay full benefits in 38 years.

“If we allow them to frame it that way — that there is a crisis, therefore we must go to private accounts — if we allow them to frame it that way, the fact is, we’ve perpetrated a huge fraud,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee.

Moreover, any serious effort to build a bipartisan coalition is bucking powerful trends. The latest analysis of roll-call votes by Congressional Quarterly showed that 2003 was the most partisan year of the past five decades studied, and 2004 was only slightly less so.

At a recent meeting in the White House, several Democrats came away fuming after Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., suggested it was time to try a GOP approach to the problems of Social Security, according to several Democrats who said it showed that Republicans had little interest in a truly bipartisan effort.

“Santorum was beautiful,” said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “He … said, ‘Roosevelt created this program in the ’30s, and the Democrats tried to fix it five or six times. Isn’t it time for a Republican solution?’ So much for bipartisanship.”

In contrast, many Democrats cite the Social Security commission of 1983, headed by Alan Greenspan and with bipartisan members appointed by President Reagan and leaders of both houses, as an example of the kind of process needed here; that commission helped resolve a short-term financing problem and made many other changes.

“This president would be well-advised to look back and figure out what made that commission’s efforts so successful,” said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del. There is no question that Republicans need Democratic help, if only to make it through the Senate, where they are still short of the 60 votes necessary to break any filibuster.

Moreover, even in the House, where the rules allow broad power to a majority, many Republicans do not relish the idea of having to produce all the votes for Social Security themselves.

While there is strong support among Republicans for private accounts, the details, such as whether to pay for them by government borrowing, can be divisive. Moreover, Republicans do not have the political cover of the AARP, the huge retirees’ lobby, as they did when they tackled Medicare restructuring.

There are a few quiet efforts at bipartisan talks. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he had been talking to some Democrats, whom he declined to name, about working together.

Graham has proposed increasing the cap on earnings subject to the payroll tax, as a means of at least partly covering the transition costs to private accounts. But other Republicans have ruled out tax increases, and the president, while not explicitly ruling out raising the income cap, has dismissed the idea of increasing payroll-tax rates.