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Congress takes a crack at Social Security reform
Scripps Howard News Service


May 06, 2005

Washington - President Bush is about to yield the Social Security spotlight to Congress after endorsing private accounts and a change in inflation adjustments that would cut guaranteed benefits for most workers in the future.

Bush has made plain his priorities. Meanwhile the two Republican lawmakers charged with drafting Social Security legislation have offered other ideas, based on their political preferences:

- CHARLES GRASSLEY was first elected to the Senate in 1980 after six years in the House and16 in the Iowa legislature. A self-described "hog farmer from New Hartford" who can be reached on the barn phone on weekends and congressional recesses, the soft-spoken Grassley chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which is in charge of taxes, trade and Medicare along with Social Security.

By July, Grassley is expected to unveil a Social Security bill that keeps the system in balance for at least 75 years. At age 71, and a Social Security recipient himself, he says he wants the system to be there for "Grandpa Grassley ... and my granddaughter when she retires 56 years from now."

His measure will start with some form of private investment accounts, although not necessarily the 4 percent of pay the president would carve out of the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax that employers and employees each pay into the system.

Grassley also is considering "progressive indexing," an idea Bush has embraced to cut back Social Security's projected $4 trillion shortfall over the next 75 years by changing the formula by which Social Security checks are adjusted for inflation.

Bush would keep the current inflation adjustment for the poorest 30 percent of wage earners - people whose lifetime earnings currently average $20,000 or less a year - but progressively reduce guaranteed benefits for better-off retirees. Grassley is open to a higher threshold that protects more middle-income retirees, he told voters in Iowa, where the average income tops $30,000.

Grassley's charge also requires him to develop a plan that can command majority support from his committee's 11 Republicans and nine Democrats, and a filibuster-proof 60 senators.

So far, however, Democrats refuse to deal as long as Bush insists on private accounts. Moderate Republicans are likewise wary: "At what cost and at what risk is it worth it to erode the basic, traditional guaranteed benefit?" asks Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

Conservative Republicans are pushing, too. First-term Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wants a bipartisan deal based on private accounts plus progressive indexing. Graham would cushion the cuts in scheduled benefits for middle-income retirees with money raised by hiking the maximum wage subject to Social Security payroll taxes, now $90,000, to $140,000 or more.

- BILL THOMAS is a 14-term Republican representative from Bakersfield, Calif., who, like Grassley, routinely wins re-election by a landslide and, as House Ways and Means Committee chairman, is Grassley's House counterpart.

The former political-science professor and state lawmaker was voted the smartest and meanest House member and chief workhorse in Washingtonian magazine's congressional staff poll after he tearfully apologized for calling U.S. Capitol police to roust committee Democrats when they retreated to an anteroom to protest a rushed vote.

Thomas was expected to let the Senate go first on Social Security until he made the surprise announcement last week that he will hold hearings next week and draft a bill by mid-June.

Not content to deal only with Social Security, Thomas says his proposal will keep Social Security solvent by looking beyond payroll taxes, possibly to a consumption tax, perhaps by stopping short of Bush's call for permanent repeal of the estate tax.

Thomas also plans to tackle pensions, retirement savings, health coverage and long-term health insurance and suggests taking account of increased longevity, disparities in race and the changed role of women since Social Security was enacted 70 years ago.

That sweeping approach puts him at odds not only with House Democrats and Senate Republicans but also with Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Bush has tax reform on a separate track and timetable, and Hastert wants the Senate to take on Social Security first.

The White House can't say it wasn't warned: Even before Bush outlined his Social Security proposals, Thomas called them a "dead horse" for not being bold enough.

But with Thomas delivering on Bush's first-term initiatives on tax cuts and Medicare prescription drugs, and considering that House Republican term limits make this Thomas's last term as Ways and Means chairman, House leaders and the White House may let Thomas stake his legacy on taking the lead again.


E-mail Mary Deibel at DeibelM(at)

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