by James Rosen
January 25, 2005
Placing Social Security reform atop the GOP legislative agenda so early in the 109th Congress underscored the issue's importance to President Bush and signaled the party's willingness to engage Democratic opponents of his plan to permit personal investment.
"For those who say that there's no problem facing Social Security, or those who want to wait and see what happens, Americans don't want us to be a Congress that passes problems off to future generations or future Congresses," Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters.
Calling the measure "probably the most important domestic legislation we will address in this Congress," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said it embodies three main goals: continuing Social Security's commitment to seniors "in retirement and those nearing retirement;" modernizing the program for future generations; and "allowing younger workers the opportunity to create voluntary personal retirement accounts."
Two of those goals echo two of the three core principles Bush has promoted - not cutting benefits for retirees or near-retirees, and permitting private accounts. Frist did not address Bush's third principle - ruling out payroll tax increases to fund those accounts - and the president has yet to send his own proposal to Congress.
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, mocked claims by Bush and his GOP congressional allies that Social Security faces critical problems that require an urgent response.
"We have leaders who love to create crises that don't exist," Reid said. "Social Security isn't in crisis. For more than 50 years, we're going to be just fine. . . . This isn't a crisis, so why should we be lurching forward?"
Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said: "We know that left untouched with no legislative changes, Social Security will make every single payment, with cost-of-living adjustments, for at least 37 years."
Durbin added that Medicare, and the nation's health-care system overall, are in worse condition than Social Security.
"In the four years since President Bush started his first term, the number of uninsured Americans has increased from 40 million to 45 million, the cost of health care has skyrocketed, and this administration has done absolutely nothing to address it," he said.
The barbed exchanges indicated how congressional debate over Social Security could escalate into a broader struggle over the entitlement programs rooted in the two Democratic presidencies _ the "New Deal" programs of Franklin Roosevelt and the "Great Society" policies of Lyndon Johnson.
Two days after winning re-election Nov. 2, Bush vowed to use his increased "political capital" to push his domestic agenda in Congress, with Social Security reform at the forefront. He aggressively promoted private accounts during a two-day White House economic conference last month and held a separate forum on Social Security reform two weeks ago.
As the battle over Social Security heated up on Capitol Hill, the head of AARP said the powerful seniors' lobbying group will spare no expense in opposing the Republicans' drive for private accounts.
"We don't like the idea of putting risk into Social Security," said William Novelli, chief executive of AARP.
Novelli said he has met or spoken with many members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, who are withholding judgment until they see Bush's plan, but who he said have deep reservations about draining money from the Social Security system.
AARP, which has 35 million members age 50 or older, will spend far more than the $5 million it spent on a just-concluded run of newspaper ads to combat private accounts, Novelli said, and likely more than its $20 million outlay during the 2003 congressional struggle over adding prescription-drug coverage to Medicare.
AARP backed Bush on the prescription-drug bill, which he signed into law in December 2003, but it is opposing him on his bid to allow Americans to use part of their Social Security taxes for private accounts.
"We will be spending very considerable resources" to oppose such accounts, Novelli said. "Since this is our number one issue, we've started at it early, and we will be placing a lot of resources on it."
AARP also released a poll showing that two-thirds of Americans 30 or older oppose major changes in Social Security, while 60 percent of all adults believe that private accounts would hurt the retirement program.
Bush, too, has cited polls, which he says show that young people want to have the opportunity to invest some of their Social Security money on their own.
A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll taken earlier this month found that 55 percent of people under 30 thought private accounts were a "good idea," even if it means cuts to guaranteed benefits.
Novelli said Monday that polling results on Social Security depend on the surveys' wording.
"Support falls away the more people learn about private accounts and how they might work," he said.
Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, on Sunday criticized AARP for "the tens of millions of dollars they're spending to simply scare people."
Thomas backed away from his earlier description of Bush's push for private accounts as "a dead horse" with little chance of passing Congress.
"I really want to compliment the president for getting the discussion of what we do with Social Security on the table," Thomas told NBC's "Meet the Press" show. "We shouldn't be attacking his proposal even before it comes out."
Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, said Monday he was eager to see Bush's concrete proposal.
"The president has been talking about Social Security for a long time," Reid said. "The rubber is going to meet the road very soon because he's going to have to put something in writing."